At the moment, a lot of drone programs are on hold as most offices around the U.S. are closed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make any progress — in fact, a slowdown is a good time to take a closer look at your operating processes and make sure everything is ready to go as soon as you’re able to get back into the field.

That’s why I wanted to explore one particular corner of good drone program management: checklists. If I could give just one piece of advice for drone programs looking to improve efficiency, I would talk about how crucial standardized workflows are in keeping flights safe and executives happy. This is where aviation checklists come in. They’re a vital tool for reducing human error, lowering risks, and maximizing gains.

If you’re in charge of building or expanding a drone program at your construction or engineering firm, consider the following four tips on using aviation checklists for your drone ops. They can help produce safer, more efficient flights as your pilots are surveying, gathering data, doing site planning, and monitoring building progress. 

1) Use a set of checklists, not just one

The best drone programs have a whole system of checklists for specific teams and scenarios. What you don’t want is one giant checklist that tries to cover everything — that will only lead to confusion, and it tempts crews to skip steps. Instead, creating and assigning relevant checklists will mean your pilots have exactly what’s needed for the assignment at hand.

At Skyward, we have different checklists for:

  • Mission planning and packing
  • Preflight site assessment
  • Takeoff procedures
  • Quick checks between flights
  • Postflight wrap-up
  • Special operations and unique missions
  • Accident or emergency response

Most companies have their own internal corporate policies that need to be integrated into the drone program’s procedures. It’s a best practice to customize your checklists to account for company rules in addition to federal and jurisdictional laws.

2) Create checklists based on where the user will be 

Ever been in this unfortunate scenario? You drive hours to survey a site, set up, and start running through your preflight checklist. Only then do you realize that there are items to check off that can only be completed back in the office. Essential equipment is left behind, or necessary procedures have been left unfinished.

Sometimes, it happens. But thinking through the location where each checklist will be completed greatly reduces headaches and frustrated phone calls from field crews about incomplete items.

Checklists that aren’t location-specific can cause added expense and project delays. They also increase the possibility your flight crew may ignore those tasks and proceed with the flight anyway. They’re another reason why it’s a smart idea to have separate in-office and on-site lists.

3) Keep them short and sweet

There’s no way for checklists to cover every what-if. Trying to do so and having too many checklists can ultimately turn into a problem: pilots may not be able to quickly think on their feet, and in an emergency they may go looking for a checklist instead of responding immediately.

Also, keep checklists simple, as complicated checklists tend to be ignored by field crews hurrying to get the job done. Trust that your experienced drone pilots are competent in the basics, and build your checklists on that assumption. If a pilot isn’t comfortable flying without constant policy reminders, maybe additional training would be a better remedy.

Aim to keep checklists to a length that take an experienced pilot about five minutes to complete. While some checklists may need to be longer, this is a sweet spot for helping everyone on the ground and in the airspace stay safer, while keeping workflows efficient.

4) Make digital your default, but have paper backups

Digital checklists are preferable to physical checklists in most circumstances. For one thing, they create a better system of accountability. It’s much easier for managers to confirm that field procedures are being followed if they can file completed checklists along with flight logs.

For another, digital checklists are easy to keep track of. They can reside on the same tablet as your drone’s ground control system, which is sure to be brought along. And they can be updated easily with the click of a button for specific circumstances.

They can even act as a place for data documentation. For checklists with the ability to enter information, they can record factors such as weather conditions or time onsite. This has the added benefit of being much harder to just check off without actually completing the step.

There are times you may need to go old school. Have physical backup checklists in case electronic versions are temporarily inaccessible. Consider printing out and laminating essential checklists to have in your drone kits for when it may be wet outside.

Why checklists? For safer flights on the job site

At Brasfield & Gorrie, number 25 on ENR’s Top 400 Contractors in 2019, safety is the chief corporate value. The general contractor is also a technology innovator. “We can literally take weeks out of a schedule” with drones, noted CEO Jim Gorrie. “Our projects are much higher quality than before — and they’re safer.”

Brasfield & Gorrie is one of many engineering and construction firms that have turned drones into a competitive advantage and a path to efficiency:

  • One survey found companies enjoyed 5 to 20 times the savings when collecting, measuring, and reporting site data using drones.
  • More than half of commercial drone operators in the same survey reported increased safety as a result of implementing drones. 
  • An inventory management system company saw a 98 percent decrease in time spent on site measuring stockpiles and a 400 percent reduction in costs with drones.

Flight checklists are a necessary step for safely achieving these gains. Skyward’s end-to-end solution for managing commercial drone operations fully integrates checklists into our web and mobile platforms. Get in touch with Skyward’s Professional Services if you’re looking for help creating or customizing checklists for your own operations. We’d be glad to help.

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