Path to Reliable, Efficient UAS Flight Ops

Lead Remote Pilot at Skyward

Safety should not be the goal of a commercial or public UAS operating organization. That statement may seem counterintuitive or controversial—but bear with me for a moment.

The primary goal of a national regulator such as the FAA (United States), CAA (United Kingdom), or CASA (Australia) is to ensure safety in a way that encourages and enables the legitimate use of airspace. The goal of any business or agency that uses UAS is to provide value to customers or colleagues at a cost that allows a business to make or save money and an agency to operate within budget allowances.

Increasing productivity while lowering costs is the business of every non-recreational UAS operator.

A failure of any kind can have a significant impact on your business’ ability to operate or be licensed. It can damage your reputation, drive up operating costs, cause loss of business or damage to your customer, or worse, cause injury to a person, which may be catastrophic to your sUAS organization. Safety is the condition of being protected from harm and other non-desirable outcomes. So it’s clear that safety is a requirement for increasing productivity and lowering costs.

During my time as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Navy, I learned that consistency, predictability, and good information management (communication) are critical to ensuring successful execution and keeping people safe even during highly stressful and unpredictable situations.

Is it dangerous to land a helicopter on a small warship? Yes. But it’s been done countless thousands of times all over the world. I’ve done it myself hundreds of times. So what prevents mishap in 99.995% of cases?

High Reliability Organizations are organizations that conduct consistent, sustainable, and low-error operations based on informed, high-quality decision making and practices. Operating complex equipment, with large numbers of people involved, in adverse conditions, a High Reliability Organization is able to not only avoid mishap but to produce consistent results.

Launching Commercial Drone Operations

Skyward has a passion for helping commercial UAS operators to become High Reliability UAS Ops Organizations. I’ll highlight a few recommended practices in this article that will hopefully provide food for thought as well as suggest some tools that you can use to become a High Reliability UAS Ops organization.

The aircraft

Consistency in the performance and function of your drones is essential for high reliability operations. For aircraft that carry people, this is partially accomplished by the granting of a Certificate of Airworthiness (CofA). Rightfully so, the bar for obtaining a CofA is very high.  

Because drones don’t carry people, are much lighter, and fly slower than manned aircraft, national regulators generally don’t require a CofA for commercial or public UAS operations.

Does this mean that airworthiness is not important? Certainly not. It means that any business that flies drones commercially, from individual operators to major enterprises, are now the final guarantor of a drone’s airworthiness. That’s a significant responsibility and one that cannot be left to chance. While mechanically simple, drones are still aircraft. You should not expect an aircraft to be reliable if you don’t pay attention to airworthiness.

If you are in the beginning stages of establishing your operation, before you buy a single sUAS you must consider:

  • What aircraft performance or functional requirements matter to your business?
  • What safety systems will you require?
  • Does the manufacturer provide support in the form of operating manuals, firmware updates, and equipment repairs?
  • What specific makes and models will you operate?
  • Are there preferred suppliers?
  • Are spare parts readily available for the aircraft?

Whether you are building a hangar of 1 or 2 aircraft or a fleet of 100, once you take delivery of the sUAS, the responsibility for continued airworthiness is yours. Some questions to consider:

  • Do you have a process in place to ensure that the aircraft was delivered to you in an airworthy state?
  • Which maintenance actions will be performed by you?
  • Which maintenance actions will be performed by an external maintenance services provider (MSP)?
  • Which maintenance actions will be performed by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM)?
  • Do you have a consistent method for ensuring that the aircraft is ready-to-fly before each job?
  • Do you have a consistent method for ensuring that you or your remote pilots know how to effectively and safely operate the aircraft?  

The flight deck: ground control station (GCS) environment

The modern flight deck has been designed to provide the optimum work environment for the onboard flight crew. A challenge for remote crews is to create a controlled work environment despite the fact that they may be operating in a wide variety of conditions.  Do you have a method in place to ensure a relatively consistent ground control station environment?

The airport

Did you realize that each time you conduct a UAS takeoff and landing, you are creating an airport? An airport is any area of land or water used or intended for landing or takeoff of aircraft.

It would take many weeks of study to begin to understand the complexities involved in the engineering, design, and construction of airports and the establishment and management of the airspace surrounding airports. The FAA guidance on the design of heliports alone is 188 pages.

You don’t need to go into that level of detail for most sUAS operations, but at a minimum you do need to consider the following factors:

  • Controlled airspace above the flight area
  • Restricted airspace
  • Nearby airports and heliports
  • Sensitive areas on the ground such as special security areas or national parks
  • Obstructions to the aircraft’s flight path
  • Obstructions to the visual line-of-sight from the GCS location to the aircraft
  • Hazards to the aircraft in the takeoff and landing area
  • Unprotected people beneath the flight path of the aircraft

Other UAS essentials 

I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg here.  Other equally important elements include:

  • Minimum qualification standards for remote pilots
  • Ensuring accountability and consistency in crew training
  • Quality control procedures for data collection
  • Pre-planned responses to accidents and incidents
  • Risk mitigations for operations in special conditions such as at night
  • Risk assessment methodology
  • Much more

Creating a compliant UAS program

On our recent webinar, Adding Drones to the Enterprise (watch the recording here), we received dozens of questions about creating a “compliant” UAS program.

While a commercial or public drone operations may not be as dangerous as landing on a small warship at night, the potential consequences to the organization are real. Airspace regulations have the force of law. National aviation regulators have the authority to impose civil penalties including fines or loss of privileges on any entity that violates aviation regulations or endangers the safety of the airspace system. UAS operating organizations need consistent methods of ensuring external compliance.  

Many organizations have well-established internal regulations set up by corporate risk managers and attorneys designed to protect the organization from operational losses and liability. UAS operating organizations must have consistent methods of ensuring internal compliance.

Establishing your sUAS ops culture

There’s a big difference between the “compliance training” videos on HR policies, information security, and federal regulations that many of us are used to sitting through once a year and the type of ingrained culture necessary to ensure highly reliable and effective sUAS flight ops on a day-to-day basis under high production pressures in the field.

Culture is a pattern of consistent observable patterns of behavior in organizations. High Reliability Organizations develop and maintain a culture which is sensitive to deviations from expected results, avoids explaining away complexity, and is sensitive to the actual conditions in the field. Whether you are a one-person organization (a culture of one) or a large enterprise, your culture starts with you.  

So how can a company, either a major corporation with multiple divisions, or a one-person entity, jump-start the creation of an externally and internally compliant, high reliability UAS ops organization and culture?

In this article on “Why Airplanes Are Safe,” Christine Negroni writes that, “Safety is an accumulation of knowledge about risk converted into practice, and no other mode of transportation has been as expansive as flying in incorporating what we know about the fallibility of humans and machines.

From relatively early in aviation history, aviators have depended on operating manuals and checklists to ensure safety and standardization. Every flight involves a series of complex processes that occur before launch, during the flight, and after final landing and involve many individual actions—which means there’s lots of room for error.  

During my time as a commercial sUAS operator, I’ve learned that there is a big difference between completing a checklist while sitting in a comfortable cockpit without any distractions and kneeling over a UAV in the sun or in the cold. The conditions and the potential distractions actually make the checklist more important. But the checklist must be sensitive to operations and be simple and usable under field conditions.

Your checklist should be a tool. A 7-pound quadrotor is not a Apollo command module. Keep it simple and focused on the most likely hazards and remember that highly reliable UAS operations are a product of culture, not putting marks in boxes. For internal compliance purposes, some organizations may require documentation that a specific procedural item was completed. Use actual checkboxes on the checklist for that purpose.

Pro tip: A general operating manual and operational checklists are the foundation of every successful UAS program.

The sUAS business operations manual standardizes processes and reduce variables and human error in order to create safe, efficient procedures. They also provide evidence to insurers and customers that an operation is safe and trustworthy. And by using Skyward as a digital system of record, they also have a complete record of their operations.

That’s why I always advise all our customers at Skyward, especially those with complex operations, to rely on operating manuals and checklists. This isn’t unique to Skyward, but it is something the most sophisticated operations have in common.

Elements of a corporate UAS workflow

sUAS business operations manual: This is a company’s central guide to UAV operations. It provides a glossary of every function, piece of equipment, and term; explains roles, responsibilities, and safety protocols; provides policies for pilot training and equipment maintenance; and gives step-by-step instructions to create predictable, safe, standard results time after time.

Operating procedures: Just as in traditional aviation, a UAS flight crew uses checklists for every step of an operation to ensure that all of the processes spelled out in the general operating manual are being carried out. Usually there are several:

  • Customer engagement: used to determine customer requirements, scope flight jobs and ensure that the product is providing value to the customer.
  • Job dispatch: used by the sUAS ops manager or dispatcher to ensure that national and company requirements are met for the flight job or operation, assign crews, aircraft and schedule flight jobs.
  • Job preparation: used by the flight crew to ensure that the equipment is ready for the flight job and that the crew is ready to execute it.
  • Job on-site: used by the field crew to ensure that proper processes are carried out on-site before the launch, during the flight(s) and after final landing.

An up-to-date drone airspace map: The only way to ensure that flight crews know airspace regulations and where they can fly safely. An expertly validated digital airspace map, such as Skyward, shows where a pilot is clear to fly and where you may need special permission. People without aviation experience are often surprised to learn that temporary flight restrictions can happen anywhere for a variety of different reasons.

A single system to organize and record it all: Even very small UAS operations need to keep track of aircraft maintenance, pilot assignments, and paperwork. They also need to plan operations and keep good records for billing and audits. A well-designed platform mitigates risks and protects assets, as well as enabling optimal efficiency. Skyward combines an interactive airspace map with these and other operations management features.

At Skyward, we’ve developed a unique sUAS business operations guide for commercial operations, based on consultation with hundreds of customers and our decades of combined experience in aviation and business operations.

Since then, dozens of our customers have used these materials to create their own low-risk, standardized operations across numerous flight crews. This means that companies aren’t starting from scratch. And if a drone evangelist is in the process of achieving buy-in from the C-suite and risk managers, presenting these materials up front is an excellent way to show that safety and compliance are top of mind. Working with compliance managers and lawyers, companies can customize our materials, giving them the flexibility to add additional terms to the operating manual and steps to the checklists.

For example, if your company requires every flight crew to take a five-minute break upon the completion of a flight, you can add that to the checklist. And, if a company operates in multiple airspace jurisdictions, the sUAS business operations guide can be customized to reflect different rules as well. You can read more about them here.

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