How Record Keeping Supports Safe Drone Operations

Manager of UAS Ops Consulting at Skyward

As drones continue their rapid transition to the workplace, the industry continues to establish norms surrounding the use of the technology. Part 107 has helped with that process, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to efficient processes and best practices. Commercial operators and aerial services managers still have a lot of leeway in structuring their systems of accountability, their safeguards against liability, and the overall culture of safety that surrounds their drone programs.

The idea of record keeping doesn’t fill most of us with excitement, but there are many excellent reasons to make it an integral part of your drone operations. In this article, I’ll cover some of the ways in which documentation can help maintain and improve the safety and efficiency of a commercial drone program.

1. Refine Future Processes by Analyzing Past Data

As with any new field, there is plenty of room for adjustment as businesses learn the most efficient ways to run their drone operations. Analyzing past operations, including any unplanned incidents, is a prime opportunity to improve your program and maintain the competitive advantage of early adoption. By keeping rigorous records, you’ll have a data set that reflects the true state of your drone program.

For example, did the majority of a company’s incidents happen with one model of aircraft? Do pilots with fewer flight hours tend to collect subpar data? Do operations in the months of January and February take longer? This knowledge can help you identify trouble spots and inefficiencies and continue to improve.

2. Reduce Risk by Following Standard Operating Procedures

Record keeping in the form of flight logs is central to the standard operating procedures used throughout aviation.

As we’ve mentioned before, a comprehensive general operating manual is essential for a commercial drone program. By ensuring that every team and pilot follows the standard operating procedures for every flight, you decrease the variables that lead to human error and establish a strong bedrock of accountability. Standard operating procedures are responsible for making traditional aviation so safe—for example, commercial airlines around the world follow the same preflight checks—so it’s only natural to carry this over to unmanned flight.

A general operating manual supports flight operations that accomplish their objectives safely and effectively. It contains procedures for maintenance, flight planning, pre- and post-flight checklists, as well as your own corporate policies and company-specific workflows.

With these policies in place, and a well-trained crew, you have a built-in protocol that you can point to in the event of a safety incident, allowing you to identify exactly how things went wrong, and insulate the firm from liability. Having these processes in place can also help you negotiate a better rate on insurance.

If you’re looking to develop your operating manual, Skyward offers Take Flight, which contains standard operating procedures drawn from standard aviation and business operations. It’s simple to use and to customize to your company’s use cases and workflows.

3. Maintain an Audit Trail to Provide Transparency and Save Time

When your executives, a corporate legal team, or outside auditors request records of your drone operations, you don’t want to be in the position of having to scrape together inconsistently recorded data from a variety of sources with differing levels of precision and detail. You want centralized, up-to-date data about the entire scope of your unmanned aviation program.

Many companies use Skyward to store records of each flight and operation, including date, time, personnel, equipment, and classes of airspace where the operation took place. To provide full transparency, give executives, lawyers, and risk managers access to your Skyward account so they can check in whenever they’d like.

Having this information in the same place as your other drone documentation is not only convenient, it also allows you to maintain detailed records as a natural byproduct of planning your flights in Skyward. In this way, a firm can be sure its operations are legal and know that they have the information to prove it.

Richard Lopez of Hensel Phelps, one of the largest general contractors and construction companies in the United States, told us how centralized documentation helped him achieve buy-in for the drone program. (Read our case study with Hensel Phelps here.)

“Skyward was the biggest factor in getting our drone program approved,” he said. “What our legal team loved was the thoroughness of the software and the ability to document pilots. All of our information is on the web and contained in one database, so all of our district teams, our legal team, and the safety team can access this information whenever they need to.”

4. Track Maintenance and Inventory

Early on, Richard Lopez recognized the need to document his equipment to track maintenance and understand the inventory needs of their drone program.

“I already had a plan in place for documenting inventory and keeping track of everything, including checks and balance, and inventory requirements,” he said. “I wanted to model our system off manned aircraft.”

Making sure your fleet is properly maintained and your equipment is thoroughly tracked is essential. From the batteries to the propellers, every inch of your aircraft needs to be inspected and documented. Documentation is key, because it’s not enough to simply replace a part. Knowing when, how, and why a part was replaced is vital to understanding your equipment and forecasting your maintenance needs in the future, increasing safety and reducing the cost of upkeep over time.

There are multiple points of failure in any complex machine, and there are identifiable signs of wear which you can track. Certain parts are best replaced on a planned cycle, and the batteries should be rotated to distribute wear and tear across your entire set of equipment, not concentrated among a few overstressed items. With in-depth documentation of your inventory, this is much easier to accomplish.

Download a preview of Skyward's standard operating procedures and checklists for drones