Safety is a top concern for many of Skyward’s customers across a variety of industries. In construction, heavy machinery and unfinished structures can lead to workplace accidents. For utilities, high-voltage lines and dangerous heights are hazards of the job. Those are just a few examples — every company has policies built around keeping workers safe and preventing accidents.
You’ve probably heard by now that drones can reduce risks to personnel. But what about the new risks inherent to drone operations? How can you mitigate a worst-case scenario like a drone crash, an injury, or a legal incident?
It all starts with your program’s standard operating procedures. If you’ve been around Skyward much, you’ve probably heard us talk about how critically important these procedures are for any aviation program. So today, I want to discuss four questions you should answer in your operating procedures to minimize risks to your program.
1) Are your pilots flying only when and where they’re supposed to?
No one wants a run-in with the federal government — which is why it’s absolutely critical to make sure every one of your pilots understands airspace requirements. For example, in the U.S. drones need to avoid the airspace above certain critical infrastructure, which is defined state by state. Power plants, petroleum refineries, stadiums, and factories that use combustible chemicals are common no-fly zones. And that’s not to mention all the controlled airspace around airports.
As an example of the kind of trouble you can land in, the FAA is authorized to charge violators with a fine up to $100,000 and up to a year in jail for violating a security-related temporary flight restriction. I can’t think of any surer way of getting your drone program shut down for good. Such consequences have been rare, but as the skies continue to grow busier, and with the commercial drone market set to triple by 2023, the FAA may be more inclined to crack down on reckless pilots and companies.
So how can you be sure you’re accessing the airspace safely and legally?
It starts with reliable, trustworthy pilots. You can have all the airspace safety tools in the world, but if your pilots don’t care about using them, they won’t help your operation. On the other hand, a well-trained and responsible pilot will know to check the airspace before every flight and follow your other corporate policies. Selecting and training quality pilots is a key step in making sure your drone team chooses safe times of day, airspace, and weather to fly in.
You’ll need a reliable airspace tool for your pilots to use. At minimum, you’ll want an airspace map that includes controlled airspace and temporary flight restrictions, which are critical when determining if you’re in an area that’s safe to fly. For more advanced operations, you may want to consult a VFR sectional for more in-depth airspace information.
Your airspace tools should also include the FAA’s LAANC capability for times you need to fly in controlled airspace. You definitely want to obtain the right permissions before operating anywhere near an airport.
Set up a system for logging your flights. This allows you to check flights later for a compliance review. And if a legal concern arises, you have evidence of exactly how your pilots operated. It’s not the most glamorous part of drone operations, but it is one of the most important.
Skyward’s Aviation Management Platform offers the tools you need to access airspace with confidence. We provide an airspace intelligence map which includes everything we talked about above, plus ground hazards you might encounter during drone ops. You can plan flight areas with operational boundaries and log flights to Skyward for easy insight into your operations. Skyward also offers live flight tracking so you can monitor your operations as they happen from the office, or even from home.
2) What is your plan for protecting drone data?
Information security and data breaches take the spotlight every so often. Whether due to carelessness or bad actors, compromised data is a risk you can’t afford. You need to have a plan for safely capturing, processing, and storing data — especially if you’re inspecting critical infrastructure.
There’s no single process or solution that will work for all companies. You should sit down with your IT teams and establish what systems and procedures you’ll use for your particular use cases and objectives. Here are a few items we recommend discussing:
- Collection – How will you store data in the field? Who will have access to memory cards or data storage devices?
- Transmission – Is transmitted data encrypted between the drone to your ground control system? If information is broadcast through the internet, could it be intercepted?
- Upload – How will you move data from onboard memory storage to your business systems? Will you require a secure uplink, or that uploads only be performed in-office?
- Long-term storage – Where will drone data be securely stored? How long will you keep files before deleting them?
In addition to data security concerns, be sure to follow best practices for aircraft security, too. For example, some concerns have been raised over drones manufactured in foreign countries. Others have been concerned about bad actors hacking into or jamming drones.
To minimize these risks, be sure to follow safety practices like keeping firmware up to date to protect against potential security bugs, and have procedures for worst-case scenarios like a crash.
3) How will you keep up with new regulations in a fast-changing industry?
The regulatory environment of the drone industry is evolving rapidly, which can make compliance complicated. For example, the FAA’s proposed rule for remote identification of drones could have a significant effect on the industry. And as my colleague recently observed, more regulatory waivers are being approved by the FAA than ever before, opening the door to more flights at night, over people, and beyond visual line of sight.
So how will you cope with these ever-changing requirements and operate in accordance with national, regional, and local laws?
We recommend partnering with an industry expert like Skyward. Our Professional Services Team consults with enterprises to keep them up to date on regulatory changes and help them accomplish the jobs they want to fly. And Skyward actively engages with the regulatory bodies developing these rules in the U.S. and setting standards internationally.
4) Do you have visibility into all aspects of your drone program?
Oversight of a corporate drone program is a lot easier when all your operations are standardized, digital, and reviewed regularly. When you have accessible records spanning all your drone ops, it’s much easier to audit your operations and find potential weaknesses or liabilities. And when there’s a problem or an accident, you can quickly assess what may have gone wrong by looking at your records and processes.
As your program scales, these processes will help you keep from being overwhelmed. The goal is to have systems and processes robust enough to support you no matter how many pilots and aircraft you might be managing. Skyward can help you improve the transparency of your program by establishing a complete system of record so you can provide access to any corporate, legal, or security teams who might need the data. We can even help you capture the level of risk for each operation with our new risk assessment tool.
How Skyward helps
Skyward helps enterprises mitigate risks and run efficient drone programs through software, consulting services, and innovation to move into the future of drone operations. Interested in reducing risks in your program? Get a free consultation.