You’ve run a successful drone pilot program and your enterprise sees potential for speeding up projects, improving safety, or getting better data at less cost. You’ve gotten the go-ahead to build capacity in your drone operations.

What should you know about scaling drone operations from one or two pilots to potentially dozens of pilots and hundreds of flights?

As Skyward’s customer success manager, I’ve helped dozens of companies scale up their drone operations over the last couple of years, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.

1. Demonstrate Drone Proof of Concept and How You Want to Expand

Your pilot program should have included clear business goals and metrics to gauge progress. Update the presentation you made to get original approval for drone ops with these results. Document costs, new revenue streams created, savings from safety improvements (lower insurance rates, fewer worker injury claims), productivity gains, insights from the data collected, and lessons learned.

You now have a UAS use case specific to your company. It’s likely the value of the pilot program is plain to see, so getting approvals on expansion may be more about choosing between lots of new use cases, or deciding between contract or insourced pilots than justifying the technology.

Be specific about how you’re planning to scale your drone operations. Here are common ways organizations choose to expand:

  •        Add drones to the fleet so they can conduct multiple projects at once.
  •        Expand to new corporate divisions.
  •        Experiment with new uses.
  •        Operate in more geographies.
  •        Add new contract pilots in a new region.
  •        Get more in-house pilots certified in Part 107.

A good example of this is Power Construction, a top 500 ENR building contractor in Chicago. They first used drones to capture aerial photos and videos of projects for marketing purposes. In less than two years, they’ve expanded to four drones and two Part 107-certified pilots, with more being onboarded this year. (Watch our recent webinar with Power Construction on scaling up.)

Decisions on your expansion will likely be prioritized by factors like ROI, a competitive advantage that could be gained for a division, ease of access to qualified pilots, and which corporate territories are slated for growth.

The program now includes estimator work and using drone flight imagery to assure they’re not doing any damage to neighboring buildings during demolitions. This documentation is archived in case it’s ever needed as proof.

Other construction industry uses include:

  •        Surveying building sites, sometimes using LiDAR
  •        3D modeling
  •        Build sequencing
  •        Pre-demolition inspection and documentation
  •        Thermal imaging, for determining HVAC efficiency
  •        Documenting work sites (counting numbers of rigs, documenting avoidance of natural areas)
  •        Recording progress of work
  •        Building inspections
  •        Cardinal direction views
  •        Line of sight analysis
  •        Remediation site monitoring
  •        Time-lapse videos

2. Show Your Risk Mitigation & Compliance Approach

Managing risks and complying with strict aviation regulations get more complicated when a drone program expands across business units, countries, or distributed teams.

It comes down to standardized workflows and processes that are clear and repeatable. Along with your drone technology platform, there are two keys to standardization.

The first is a General Operating Manual. A Part 107 Remote Pilot certificate only means your pilots know the rules for flying UAVs in the United States. An operating manual adds best practices and procedures that ensure safe, efficient, and consistent drone operations. If your pilot program didn’t include one, don’t go any further without creating it.

The manual is your drone ops bible. It puts step-by-step instructions, policies, and compliance information in one place. It creates transparency throughout the organization, promotes safety, assures the company abides by regulations, increases efficiency and reduces the possibility of incidents. Here’s what it should include:

  •        Glossary of each drone program function, piece of equipment and term
  •        Roles, responsibilities and safety protocols
  •        Policies for pilot onboarding and training
  •        Equipment intake process (assuring airworthiness of new drones on delivery)
  •        Equipment maintenance protocols (who performs it, when, how is servicing recorded)
  •       Checklists based on the above, so all operating procedures, insurance considerations, etc. are adhered to
  •        Any corporate standards that need to be built into the drone program
  •        Quality control procedures for data collection
  •        Pre-planned responses to accidents and incidents
  •        Risk mitigations for operations in special conditions like night flights or wind
  •        Risk assessment methodology

The second key to accountability and consistency is developing a drone ops culture. Running a drone program means your company is now taking part in the aviation industry. With the added complexities of lots more flights, equipment and team members, you need a culture committed to procedures that prevent errors—and to candid review when things go wrong. Each team member has to internalize responsibility for airworthiness and data collection so you get useful info from every flight, safely. Our chief pilot has written a white paper about creating a corporate culture of safety.

3. Drone Software Selection, Setup & Training

Trying to run an enterprise-level drone program without a user-friendly tech platform is costly, inefficient, and risky. Airspace and safety violations can open a business up to major legal exposure.

What’s more, the waiver application process to fly in controlled airspace can take months instead of seconds without FAA-approved Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability. (Skyward is currently one of the only drone ops management platforms authorized for near-instant LAANC airspace approvals.)

Here are the functionalities of best-in-class drone ops management platforms:

  • Real-time, interactive airspace maps showing restrictions, sourced from governing bodies and validated by aviation experts
  • Instant flight permission in controlled airspace
  • Worldwide airspace maps compliance
  • Works with any type of drone
  • Seamless management of insourced and contract pilots (documentation on training, pilot licenses, proof of insurance, minimum flight time requirements)
  • Integrated flight planning tools (assigning the right pilot for right conditions with the right aircraft, weather forecasts, checklists)
  • Centralized flight logbook to meet regulatory and corporate requirements (pilot hours, equipment hours, flight times)
  • Easy import and reporting of data, including integration with internal company platforms
  • Aircraft maintenance tracking (blades, battery cycles, firmware updates)
  • Tiered access, so separate divisions, internal flight crews and contractors only have access to the information that applies to them
  • Employee training on the platform included

4. Technology Integration & Data Management

To get the most value from UAS, the data collected has to be easily accessible. Even if you’re managing a mixed fleet of fixed-wing and rotor drones mounted with multiple different sensors, the goal is to make it simple to integrate all the data they collect with your existing reporting methods.

This respects internal processes, so lots of employees aren’t asked to learn a new system when the drone program comes to their business unit.

UAS generates granular data and a lot of it. As you scale, have a plan for making your data useful. Data storage and management can become a major logistical challenge and cost center. Think ahead on questions of data crunching, updating and archiving. Ask your drone software vendor for help in configuring the technology.

5. Flight Training for Pilots

FAA Remote Pilot certification through Part 107 is rigorous, but it only teaches basic rules for flight. Assuring each of your pilots is confident in her knowledge the first day she’s on a job site will require more.

Take advantage of instruction from drone experts for this training. They can initiate new pilots into the zero-error drone ops culture and provide hands-on practice based on your operating manual. Having pilots be able to ask questions of an aviation expert in person typically results in much faster, lasting learning than just reading a guide.

6. Monitor Regulatory Changes

Since UAS is an emerging industry, the regulatory environment is evolving with it. For example,  rules on remote ID and tracking of drones and package delivery are under consideration.

For now, there are many flights that require waivers:

  •        Flights over people
  •        Beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights
  •        Controlled airspace
  •        Restricted airspace
  •        Night flights

Tracking what FAA rules on these uses will emerge is no simple task. The key groups within the FAA are the Drone Advisory Committee, LAANC Working Group, and Remote ID Aviation Rulemaking Committee (Skyward collaborates on all of these). There are also wireless communications regulations to consider.

It takes engagement with federal agencies and some reading between the lines to be strategic about the timing and outcomes of coming rules. Ask your drone operations software vendor what they know.

7. Ongoing Support for Adoption

Construction giant Hensel Phelps has a strong internal educational campaign to spread the message about their growing drone program, including company-wide seminars. Drone evangelists in other large companies publish articles in internal blogs and magazines, form committees including leaders from different departments and just engage in lunchroom chats to educate the uninitiated and earn buy-in.

In addition to building support for UAS adoption to new areas of the company, you need a plan for maintaining security as your fleet size grows. Cybersecurity threats are real, with vulnerabilities including GPS spoofing, GPS jamming, denial-of-service attacks and hijacking. Corporate espionage via drones is also already happening, with reports of drones landing on data centers and tapping into sensitive information.

And unmanned aerial technology is always advancing. New geo-fencing and collision avoidance technologies are now being integrated into drone software.

Bottom line: Continue to work closely with your software provider to keep current with patches, new functionalities and best practices on corporate security.

Key Takeaways for Successful Scaling

Running a pilot program with one or two aircraft is different from enterprise-level implementation. Don’t try to run enterprise drone ops on spreadsheets and email. You need a centralized technology platform and standard processes that allow you to manage your program easily and reveal areas that can be improved: Which times of year are more reliable for flights? Are any pilots’ data underperforming? Which model of aircraft fits best for most assignments? Is it better to use insourced or subcontractor pilots?

Follow the practices above and you’ll get the data you want, control risks and have a system for continual improvement.  

Need support? Skyward provides drone consulting services for every point along the adoption and scaling journey in your drone operations.