Skyward has helped quite a few companies that are just starting out with drones — you can read some of their stories here. Along the way, I’ve noticed some common obstacles to smooth adoption. So I’ve put together an outline of the phases that a beginning drone program typically follows.
No two drone programs look exactly alike, and your program may complete these phases in a different order. But I’ve seen drone program leaders follow this process to create drone programs with best practices at the core.
Phase I: Discovery and planning
This phase documents jobs you plan to complete with drones in your business. You’ll start exploring use cases in your industry and how your company will put drones to work. The goal is to have standardized policies for nearly all aspects of operations. This includes:
- Conformity with corporate standards
- How you’ll manage airspace access and other regulatory compliance
- Liability, crisis management, and safety plans
- Pilot requirements and training standards
- Program management practices
- Maintenance tracking
The deliverable for this work is a general operating manual. This is your program’s source of truth which provides step-by-step instructions on how to run a predictable, safety-conscious program. It typically contains standards on crew roles, safety protocols, pilot training, and equipment maintenance. It also includes supporting materials like checklists, risk assessments, and incident response procedures.
Your general operating manual, and the standard operating procedures it contains, lay the foundation for your program. It builds regulatory compliance right into your workflows. It’s not the most glamorous step, but it’s essential to have these materials in place before your pilots start flying any drones.
Phase II: Sourcing drones and pilots
The findings from phase one will determine the aircraft that will best suit your company’s needs. You’ll want to start with your use cases, using them to determine what specs will be required to complete the job. You may want to consider factors like:
- Flight time
- Lifting capacity
- Types of sensors and payloads
- Weather resistance
- Software compatibility
When choosing a vendor for hardware purchasing, you can evaluate them based on the types of drones they sell, what technical and service support they offer, and other factors such as warranties. (Looking to build out your drone fleet? Skyward can help.)
Sourcing work also includes pilots. If you’re contracting out your drone work, you’ll need to find qualified, experienced pilots who can get the job done. If you’re building an internal program, you’ll need to identify responsible, capable employees to train to be drone pilots.
Phase III: Implementing management systems
You need software to plan flights, record job specs, track aircraft, and manage pilots. Here are a few functionalities you should expect from your drone ops software solution:
- An airspace map from authoritative sources. This should include permanent airspace regions as well as temporary restrictions, such as in the event of a natural disaster
- Integration with the FAA’s LAANC, providing quick access to controlled airspace
- Easy reporting on your program
- Flight planning and logging to meet mission requirements and record flight hours
- A system for managing documents: certifications, job specs, regulatory permission
- Operating checklists for every stage of the mission
- A system for tracking aircraft maintenance: props, batteries, firmware updates
Phase IV: Training drone crews
Accountability and consistency have to be built into your 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 promote reliable drone operations on a day-to-day basis, your training program should:
- Include key knowledge concepts as well as practical flight training
- Establish a strong safety culture and awareness of risks
- Equip your pilots to monitor and respond to changes in the field
- Set quality control procedures for data collection
- Include regular refreshers as your program, regulations, and technology continue to evolve
Skyward’s Professional Services team provides a variety of training services for enterprise drone teams. Check out our pricing page to see several different packages.
Phase V: Launching your drone program
Now it’s time to start performing missions with your drone fleet. Expect to refine many aspects of your program as you’re starting out — operating procedures, management processes, internal systems, and more.
One important best practice is periodically reviewing your operations, including unplanned incidents, with your drone team to improve efficiency and prevent accidents. If you’ve earned buy-in across your organization, you’ll also likely hear from colleagues about new ways they would like to leverage drones.
As you go to work, be sure to keep stakeholders and executives informed of your results. Once your pilot program starts capturing aerial data, you’ll likely find ways to refine systems for crunching, reporting, and archiving it.
Skyward can help accelerate your drone program’s launch
Skyward’s Program Start package is designed to help companies start flying a high-value drone operation in a few weeks. It equips companies with the policies, equipment, software, and training they need to launch a drone program and achieve value quickly. And it includes in-person training from Skyward’s drone experts.