Recently, I wrote an article about some of the pitfalls companies should avoid when beginning to stand up a drone program. But what about established programs?

More mature drone programs face a whole different set of hurdles. Sometimes, a promising drone program stalls out or loses budget because of systemic problems — or because of an avoidable incident. This is especially true when drone programs begin to scale up. Growth brings major challenges, and some companies aren’t prepared to meet them.

Here are some of the key obstacles facing an expanding drone program.

#1: Failure to create a culture of safety

Drone programs must start with a strong focus on safety. Usually, UAS programs begin with a core group of drone pilots who are enthusiastic about the possibilities of drones. But as a program begins to expand, UAS managers have to ensure that any pilots who are added to the program meet the same standards. They must receive comprehensive training and have a high respect for operating in the national airspace.

Failure to communicate the importance of safe UAS operations could lead to irresponsible flying or even an incident, which could ultimately freeze your drone program. Don’t let this happen to you!

Do more than just set up safety standards. Establish your whole drone culture on a bedrock of safety. Provide continued safety education and stay up to date with industry best practices. It will save you headaches — and liability.

#2: Too much reliance on outside drone service providers

Often, companies are first exposed to drones by contracting with drone service providers to fly jobs for the company. While using an outside drone service provider may be fine for doing an initial proof of concept or to fly specialty missions that require advanced aircraft or equipment, I’ve seen companies stall their program by continuing to depend on outside service providers more than they should.

Compared to internal drone programs, drone service providers cost more, which could degrade your ROI. Outside crews also must be scheduled in advance, which delays getting the data you need. Relying on service providers can also stifle a company’s ability to innovate with new uses for drones. If a company has to reach out to their service supplier for every operation, that means they can’t experiment for themselves. They may end up missing out on novel use cases, some of which may be significant.

#3: Lack of thorough, standardized operating procedures

Creating program standards isn’t glamorous, but it’s absolutely necessary to ensure everyone is consistently performing with excellence. Your program needs a complete set of standards covering every aspect of your drone operation. This should include:

  • General operating manual — your guide to everything in your UAS program
  • Standard operating procedures — a full set of standards for all your operations based on best practices
  • Emergency and incident procedures — how you will respond when things go wrong
  • Standardized training — how you will qualify and certify every new pilot in your program
  • System of checklists — to promote safe practices for every single flight
  • Aircraft maintenance practices — making sure your fleet is in top condition

This supports a culture of aviation safety and helps make sure teams across the whole company are coordinated in their drone ops.

For companies looking for a place to start, Skyward offers a general operating manual and standard operating procedures. Skyward’s Professional Services team offers consultations to customize your operating procedures to meet your use cases and match your corporate policies and standards.

#4: Not having the budget for a drone program

Budget is a constant struggle for any corporate program, but especially for drone initiatives. On paper, drone programs are often undervalued, and associated costs may run higher than expected. Frequently overlooked costs include software for program management and data processing, purchase of additional or replacement aircraft, expert consultation, and increasing the size of the program.

For drone programs looking to expand, additional funding is a must. When making the case for expansion to executives, the proposed budget should reflect the larger scale of your program and take into account additional use cases that may be discovered after it has started. But be ready for additional accountability: higher dollars bring higher scrutiny at higher levels.

A tip: measure your ROI with actual numbers, not just forecasted numbers. This will help a great deal when convincing executives to allocate additional budget. This data needs to be captured well before you attempt to scale your use cases. In fact, this method of capturing the data necessary for measuring ROI should be baked into your operating procedures. 

#5: No clearly designated UAS program leader

UAS programs frequently start as a small team under the supervision of a manager who already has a role at the company — a project manager, IT director, health & safety officer, or similar position. As the program scales, the original drone evangelist takes on more and more tasks while still performing their day job. Eventually, this leads to an imbalance, and the manager ends up shortchanging one role or the other.

When a drone program begins to grow, managers and company executives must explicitly identify dedicated management for the UAS program. If your company has an aviation department for executive travel, integrating your drone program into it is a good option. Otherwise, leadership should officially designate a UAS lead: the original UAS manager or another employee.

If your program is struggling to find a suitable leadership structure for your program, let us know. Skyward’s Professional Services team can bridge the gap and help reduce the demands of part-time UAS managers (and full time managers, too).

#6: Not having systems that adapt to change

Drone solutions can completely change the way data is collected in the field, or provide new capabilities that didn’t exist before. This tends to overwhelm existing systems and procedures. Data practices designed for your company’s everyday operations may not be enough for the volume of data produced by dozens of UAVs. And program standards designed for a small team may not apply for a drone fleet with a hundred operators.

UAS managers need to be agile: program growth and new use cases often necessitate changes to the workflow. They will need to design new processes to support ever-changing use cases — processes that may impact other parts of the organization.

That’s why Skyward offers enterprise-grade UAS program management solutions. We know the struggles a growing operation faces, and we’ve helped companies start from nothing or scale up huge operations. Whether you need advice on how to integrate best practices, or you’re looking for a software solution to manage your entire program, Skyward can help.

Looking to grow your drone operations?

On Wednesday, March 25, I’ll be sharing more tips and advice for drone programs in any stage as a panelist for Skyward’s webinar, Drone Program Dos and Don’ts: Tips to Build, Scale, and Innovate. Even if you can’t make it live, register for the webinar and we’ll send you a recording of the presentation.