Guest Column: Define Your UAS Operations
The drone itself is not the most important part of an effective unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program. Experienced drone operators that understand clearly defined operations that guide and structure the use of the drone are often the most critical success factor in UAV projects.
Without well-defined operations, a company faces a great deal of risk — often unwittingly. Those risks can include potential accidents, violating laws, and wasting time and money.
Well-developed and specific drone operations that help mitigate these risks cover training, procedures, checklists and data workflow. The right operations ensure a drone program is successful by ensuring that it is safe, legal and profitable.
Surveying by drone requires flying over your client sites where personnel and property may be present. A crash that involves more than damage to the drone could be devastating to a business. If diligent operations have not been implemented, the drone operator is likely to be unaware of the risk factors present until it’s too late.
A few simple procedures help minimize risk. Store batteries in a cool place and use them at least once every few weeks. Always check the weather the day before a flight to ensure that wind, temperature and precipitation are within the drone’s tolerances. Before every flight, calibrate the drone’s compass, do a complete system check and conduct a thorough physical inspection of all equipment. If there is even a minor defect, like a chip in a propeller, replace the part rather than taking a risk. Before finalizing a flight plan, inspect the area for potential hazards that may go unnoticed, such as guy lines, power lines and trees.
It is unreasonable to expect a field crew member to remember every small step involved in ensuring system and situational safety. Instead, create a checklist that is efficient to use, but will prompt the operator to conduct all necessary safety checks. Insist on these checklists being completed on every flight and store them as a record of safe operations.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implemented commercial UAV rules in August of 2016. Covered in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR), Part 107 laws are still relatively new and overlap the previous regulatory regime (often called the “333 Exemption”). This can be confusing. Any person who is going to operate the drone is required to pass a knowledge-based test and receive a remote pilot certificate with a small UAV rating.
The details of the regulations can be nuanced, and remembering every detail for every flight can be challenging. To ensure that every drone flight is in full compliance, the flight checklist should be designed to guide the operator through the regulations, making sure that every regulatory requirement is covered without overwhelming the operator. This will ensure that even often-forgotten requirements, such as checking for temporary flight restrictions (which may be issued in cases such as wildfires), are followed and the business is not put in legal jeopardy.
The ultimate success of any drone mapping program is determined by its profitability. Unfortunately, many companies hamper their own potential profitability by not taking an operations-first approach to designing their drone program. We have heard from countless survey businesses that spent an enormous amount of money on the wrong equipment, then hundreds of hours trying to figure out the workflow to produce a sellable deliverable. When these companies look back on the cost of the hours they spent and the lost competitive time, they discover their total investment could take years to recoup.
One way to avoid this pitfall is to design a drone program by focusing on the operations, developing procedures, workflow and training to support those operations; and only then identifying the drone and software that most efficiently achieve those operational needs. Even small operational errors like forgetting to charge batteries or load memory cards quickly add up to significant lost time and money. Good operations planning prevents those minor errors.
The most common waste of money that we see is the time organizations spend trying to figure out what they are really trying to get out of their drone. Sending staff to the field without a comprehensively defined mission always results in wasted time and money. Then, spending weeks in the office trying to figure out how to produce a deliverable easily adds up to tens of thousands of dollars in man hours. Instead, a good drone program starts with a desired deliverable and then designs operations that facilitate that deliverable. Well-developed drone operations will start paying for themselves in the first mission, and many of our clients report their drone investment pays off within six projects.
It is easy to buy a drone and easy to take pretty photos. However, to be responsible and successful requires operations that avoid physical risk, follow the rules and consistently make money.