Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are becoming more prolific as commercial applications of drones continue to expand. An increasing number of business aviation departments find the organizations they support want to utilize UAS for various functions.
What best practices are UAS operators implementing to ensure safety of their own operations, as well as safe integration with traditional manned aircraft operations? How can a manned business aviation operation help drone operators, and what can the two segments of the industry learn from each other?
Begin by Assessing Risk
Experts say UAS operators should start by assessing the risks of a specific drone operation. A drone used by an electric utility for powerline inspection will have a very different risk profile than a drone used by an insurance company to inspect storm damage, for example.
After a risk assessment is completed, operators should begin developing policies and procedures to mitigate the risks identified, then provide team members with initial and recurrent training on those policies and procedures.
Experts say documenting your organization’s best practices and providing thorough training is even more important as a drone organization grows. Often, UAS organizations begin with the most experienced pilots at the controls, but as they grow, pilots with less aviation experience are brought into the fold. In the meantime, drone technology continues to advance rapidly. Growing and evolving operations should understand that risk and put additional emphasis on following documented policies and procedures and providing appropriate training during growth periods.
“It’s important for the flight department to take on the management of the UAS operations. These operations are an aviation asset.”
JOSH OLDS President, Unmanned Safety Institute, Inc.
That said, experts caution against stifling innovation through too much rigidity in documented policies and procedures.
“You can’t be so married to process and procedure that you can’t embrace new technology into workflows, but policy and procedure commensurate to size and complexity of an operation help to safely integrate that new technology,” said Josh Olds, president of Unmanned Safety Institute, Inc.
The experts recommend revisiting your best practices frequently to verify they continue addressing your risks without stifling innovation.
Establish a Strong Safety Culture
It’s also important for UAS operators to establish a culture of safety. Just like in the manned aviation sector, unmanned aircraft pilots should be told it’s okay to cancel a flight due to questionable weather conditions, for example, or even pilot fatigue.
“This safety culture has to start at the beginning. Unmanned aircraft pilots need to think like aviators,” said Jon Hegranes, CEO of Kittyhawk, a provider of unmanned software and airspace systems.
Assess risk, document policies and procedures to mitigate risk, train your team, reassess your risk mitigations regularly and develop a positive safety culture… If these steps sound to you like the foundation of a safety management system (SMS), Hegranes says you’re right.
The number one best practice recommended by experts is to combine the processes above into a robust SMS, which looks and acts a lot like an SMS in the manned aircraft sector but needs to be adapted for UAS operations.
When it comes to safety and SMS, all the principles are the same,” said Hegranes. “How you apply those principles is very different.”
IBAC Plans Remotely Piloted Audit Standard
The International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) is working on an International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) Advanced Air Mobility initiative to help operators of remotely piloted aircraft systems and, eventually, electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft apply best practices and safety management system principles.
“This new standard is being developed in response to operator requests and reflects where the industry is heading,” said Bennet Walsh, IS-BAO program director at IBAC. “This new standard will align the existing IS-BAO standard and allow any vehicle mix to be fully covered by the IS-BAO. The operator’s program needs to be scalable and simple while being true to the intent of the IS-BAO standard.”
Phase 1 work is currently underway and, after being reviewed and approved by the IS-BAO Standards Board, could be available to operators in 2022.
Integrating Manned and Unmanned Operations
Manned and unmanned aviators in the same organization should work together. In some companies, the two types of operations are in separate departments, while in others the two are fully integrated. The right solution varies from one organization to another, but even departments on separate lines of an organizational chart can work together on safety principles.
If it is decided that manned and unmanned operations should be integrated, it’s important to keep in mind that UAS risk profiles are very different from manned aircraft risks. In manned aircraft operations, runway incursions and excursions present considerable risks, but runways are seldom used in drone operations. Drones fly at lower altitudes, are often intentionally near objects like powerlines, and have unique security and privacy challenges.
Experts say to rely on manned aircraft operators’ knowledge when you can, as both pilots and technicians in this space have had an opportunity to build safety cases in a very structured, regulated way of conducting operations. Remotely piloted aircraft operations are less structured, often conducted in non-certificated aircraft and in a more flexible operational environment.
In Olds’ experience, the most successful programs he has seen are being managed or supported by corporate flight departments.
“It’s important for the flight department to take on the management of the UAS operations. These operations are an aviation asset. They can make money, save money or reduce hazard hours,” said Olds, adding that traditional aviators can bring a tremendous amount of support to unmanned aircraft/remote piloted aircraft, so long as innovation is not stifled through rigidity of aviation policy not aligned with the risk category of the operation.
Further, Olds points out unmanned aircraft operations do not have an inherent “shared fate” between the aircraft and pilot, so there are some unique human factors components for remote pilots, and not just in operations, but in manufacturing and maintenance of unmanned aircraft, too.
Understanding the Unique Aspects of UAS
Experts recommend manned aircraft pilots, technicians and others involved in the flight department make it a point to observe their organization’s unmanned aircraft operations to truly understand that operational environment, the benefits of using a drone for the mission and the unique risks.
Olds highlighted the UAS field as a merger of people with four distinct backgrounds:
- Traditional Aviation
“There is an immense amount of focus on SMS because it’s helping to align those cultures and shared mental models critical to risk-averse remotely piloted operations,” said Olds.
Manned aircraft pilots with extensive experience in SMS can help unmanned pilots better understand the concepts of SMS, while unmanned operators can help their manned pilot colleagues better understand the drone use case and operating environment.
Experts see a shift in perspective among manned aircraft operators, from not really wanting to be too involved in unmanned operations, to accepting the reality of the growth of unmanned aircraft use and an increased focus on sharing airspace. Hegranes points to formal certification of UAS as one way in which the drone industry is building credibility with manned aircraft operators.
Olds compares the integration of drones into the aviation sector as a whole to the introduction of the personal computer into businesses in the 1990s. It’s a major cultural shift that was initially considered a problem for “others” (the computer was seen as a tool for administrative personnel, not executives when first introduced) but eventually was embraced by almost all employees.
“A UAS operation is actually more dynamic with more frequently changing variables than in traditional aviation,” said Hegranes. “We believe ‘drone pilot’ is a skill — not a job title.”
Many drone operators are benefiting from the safety experience of manned operators and are implementing best practices such as SMS to mitigate risk. Traditional, manned aircraft operators should reach out to UAS operations in their own companies – or even around their airport – to share safety lessons. To ensure the safety of all operations, it’s important that these two sectors work together.
Building a Safe UAS Operations
- Access risk.
- Develop, document and implement procedures to mitigate risk.
- Train on those policies and procedures.
- Re-evaluate risk as operations change.
- Update procedures as appropriate.
- Develop a positive safety culture.
- Develop a safety management system.