Pitfalls to Avoid When Launching a Drone Program

Director of Client Strategy and Business Development at Skyward

What could possibly go wrong? Because we’re in the aviation industry, UAS pros spend a lot of time understanding this question—and operating in ways that prevent high-profile errors.

In working with big companies to implement drone programs, I’ve seen that skepticism about ROI is often not the biggest objection drone proponents face when exploring a new program for their companies. It’s the legal, risk, and operational questions that raise the strongest concerns, for good reason: Airspace is one of the most regulated spaces accessible to humans.

If you’re just beginning to launch or scale a drone operation at your company, here’s a list of potential pitfalls to avoid, along with a standardized process for getting your program off the ground.

Pitfall 1: Failing to make a strong business case for adopting UAS

It’s easy to make the mistake of focusing on how cool UAV technology is and underselling the value of the data that can be collected. Corporate leadership will want to see use cases, costs, savings, increased productivity, budget and ROI estimates, and a solid approach to operating procedures.

Pitfall 2: Not covering the full range of drone liability and regulatory issues

These concerns can kill a drone project before you can say “ignition and liftoff.” Your legal counsel wants to know that flight crews won’t violate airspace regulations or local ordinances, cause damage, or infringe on privacy. They also need proof your program has proper insurance and complies with internal corporate standards. What they won’t know—unless you tell them—is that drones and the data they capture can also help to protect your company from liability. For example, Chicago-based Power Construction captures aerial photos and videos of demolition projects to document that no damage was done to neighboring buildings.

Pitfall 3: Omitting safety benefits

It’s the job of chief safety officers and risk managers to make sure assets and employees are shielded from risks and threats to safety. It’s your job to make them understand net safety: how drones can increase safety by reducing worker exposure to hazards, such as climbing towers and scaffolds, stockpiles, flammables, high-tension power lines, ash pool toxins, driving unmaintained roads, etc.

Pitfall 4: Picking the wrong aircraft for the job

Some companies purchase a drone before they’ve even identified an initial use case—big mistake. To get the best drone for your business, you need to know what questions to ask: What performance or functional requirements do you need to accomplish your goals? What support does the drone manufacturer provide (operating manuals, firmware updates, equipment repairs)? Are there preferred suppliers? Are spare parts readily available? What about sensors?

Be cognizant that in many companies aircraft needs quickly evolve. A California solar utility uses fixed-wing drone flyover data to determine the most suitable locations and layouts for their solar farms. They marry video, GPS, and GIS data with corporate design systems, running thousands of simulations to map solar strings so they yield the most power. They also fly quadcopter drones to inspect existing facilities, using infrared sensors to detect malfunctioning panels. Technology is advancing rapidly, so plan on frequent upgrades.  

Pitfall 5: Getting the wrong software

Not every drone ops management platform fully integrates with all makes and models of drones. Look for solutions that are flexible enough to handle what you’re flying today and may be flying in the future.

Just as important, make sure your provider is authorized under the LAANC program to grant quick flight permissions in controlled airspace. These authorizations can otherwise take months to acquire without this capacity.

Pitfall 6: Failing to get buy-in across the company

It’s smart to educate fellow employees as well as corporate leadership about the drone program. Kevin Grover, UAS operations manager at Stantec, formed a committee with leadership from across the company to discuss drone technology. He contributed to the company blog and magazine. He spread the word around the water cooler about how drones could and should be used. Such networking leads to enthusiasm as well as ideas on other potential use cases.

Pitfall 7: Underestimating training needs

Getting certified by the FAA under Part 107 as a remote pilot is essential and the need for training is apparent. What is sometimes overlooked is the need to make sure your pilots are familiar with your corporate flight standards and procedures.  Running an in-sourced UAV program requires skills and protocols that probably aren’t part of your everyday business.

The Process for Launching a Corporate Drone Program

Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead to set up a pilot project, you need a work plan that summarizes how the drone program fits within the company and details all aspects of how it will operate. UAS adoption can be organized into five phases.

Discovery, Technical Overview & Plan

This phase documents the planned uses for drones in your business and all aspects of operations:

  • Conformity with corporate standards
  • How you’ll manage airspace access and other regulatory compliance
  • Liability, crisis management, and safety plans
  • Procuring insurance
  • Pilot requirements/management
  • Approach to maintenance tracking

The deliverable for this work is a general operating manual with operational checklists and step-by-step instructions on how to run a predictable, safe program. Combined with software providing up-to-date drone airspace maps, it builds regulatory compliance right into workflows. It includes standards on roles, responsibilities, and safety protocols; policies for pilot training and equipment maintenance; a glossary of all terms; and checklists (operational, flight crew, equipment control).

Sourcing

The findings from phase one will determine specs for the aircraft that will best suit your company’s needs. You’ll evaluate vendors based on types of drones they sell, what technical and service support they offer, the quality of their warranties and manuals, etc.

Sourcing work also includes pilots. If you’re subcontracting with any, you’ll identify qualified contract operators who meet your criteria in your specific location.

Training

Accountability and consistency have to be built into your unmanned air program from day one. The training phase is when members of your team start adopting the essential tenets of a drone ops culture.

It’s not accomplished by a one-and-done compliance training video. To ensure highly reliable drone operations on a day-to-day basis under high production pressures, your training program should:

  • Make monitoring and responding to changing field conditions second nature
  • Instruct on quality control procedures for data collection
  • Expect each team member to report when things go wrong
  • Set pre-planned responses to accidents and incidents
  • Provide understanding on risk mitigations and risk assessment
  • Be ongoing, as uses for drones in the company change, your program expands to different countries with different rules, and UAS technology continues to advance

Software Implementation

You need software to plan flights, record job specs, keep good records for billing and audits, and track aircraft, pilots, and insurance. Here are functionalities you should expect from best-in-class drone ops software solution:

  • Interactive airspace map, sourced from official regulatory bodies and validated by aviation experts, so you know where it’s safe to fly and where you need special permission
  • Quick flight permission from the FAA in controlled airspace
  • Easy data import and reporting, with integration across platforms
  • Flight planning and logging to meet regulatory requirements and record flight hours
  • System for managing the documents related to your pilots: training, pilot licenses, proof of insurance
  • Operating checklists: planning, pre-flight, post-flight, etc.
  • System for tracking aircraft maintenance: blades, batteries, firmware updates

Launch & Continual Improvement

Before your first flight, present your work from phases one through four to company leadership. Once your pilot program starts capturing aerial data, you’ll likely find ways to refine systems for crunching, reporting, and archiving it.

Best practices also include analyzing past operations, including unplanned incidents, to improve efficiency and prevent accidents. If you’ve earned buy-in across your organization, you’ll also likely be hearing from colleagues on new ways to leverage drones.

The drone industry is evolving rapidly, so plan to keep pace with new developments. A few: collision detection sensors, aircraft detection and avoidance sensors, and hacking/security issues.

Mike Danielak helps lead Skyward’s Professional Services Team, a group of drone experts providing support for every phase of UAS rollout in corporations and enterprises. Mike is a licensed pilot for manned and unmanned aircraft. He formerly designed electronic controls for aircraft and is an expert in improving the efficiency of field operations with connected solutions.