Safety and Risk Management for Small UAS Operations

A recent incident involving a camera carrying multirotor coming down into the stands at a sporting event brings to the forefront a few of many issues that will need to be addressed in the regulatory and training processes of the civilian UAS industry, both the commercial and hobby side. Yes, the limitations and figures of this maximum altitude and that weight etc. are important, but one aspect that I have not often enough heard discussed in the civilian UAS field is Risk Management.

When most people hear the words ‘aviation safety’, the first thing that comes to mind is accident rate. This is actually only a very small part of the equation. The simplest way to define aviation safety is in fact, and quite plainly, risk management.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which is an organ of the United Nations, Risk Management is defined as: “The identification, analysis and elimination (and/or mitigation to an acceptable or tolerable level) of those hazards, as well as the subsequent risks, that threaten the viability of an organisation.”

The most important point, IMHO, to take from that definition is that no operation or system will ever be 100% safe, it is not achievable unless you never fly and even then 100% safety cannot be guaranteed. The definition in itself acknowledges this by the use of the phrase ‘mitigation to an acceptable or tolerable level’. Accidents and incidents will happen, this is an accepted fact in the aviation industry as a whole, the frequency and severity of these accidents and incidents are what can be limited to a certain extent by identifying and managing risk properly.

This is an important idea to come to grips with before moving any deeper into the subject.

Also according to ICAO: “The objective of risk management is to ensure that the risks associated with hazards to flight operations are systematically and formally identified, assessed, and managed within acceptable safety levels.”

Another key point to take from the definition of Risk Management is the word viability. Viability takes both safety and financial aspects of an organisation/operation/system into account. This organisation might be a multi-million dollar company or the avid UAV hobbyist. If the cost of safety implementations is too great, it is not viable for either to carry on using the system because either the profit margin for the company is affected drastically or the budget of the hobbyist is exceeded. If the system is not safe enough, the system will either fail regularly or drastically, or both, and again neither the multi-million dollar company nor the hobbyist can carry on using the system. It is all a balancing act between safety and financial factors. (false economy screams to mind but its what we have to deal with at present)

Personally, I believe that everyone can benefit from good risk management principles, not just the (future) commercial civilian UAS industry but also the pure hobbyist, and everyone in between. I also believe that if applied properly, a good risk management philosophy will not impede on the pioneering spirit of this field. I say this because one of the main ingredients of true innovation and pioneering in any field is risk itself, but that does not mean that the risk should not be identified, analysed and mitigated to an acceptable level. This is applicable not only to the operation of UAS but also in the manufacturing of UAV autopilots and the selection of off the shelf equipment and electronics by the end user.

A good example of risk management already practiced by many without it being outright called risk management is using metal gear instead of plastic gear servos for an elevator, for instance. Although using metal gear servos for all control surfaces is safer than plastic gear servos, it is also cost and perhaps weight prohibitive for some systems. The risk is mitigated by installing a metal gear servo only on the elevator. The elevator is a critical component and takes the most strain compared to all other standard fixed wing control surfaces. This increases overall safety of the system without substantially increasing weight or cost.

For this industry to survive the regulators in the longer run, specifically the one-man small Unmanned Aerial System take-an-aerial-photo-of-your-neighbor’s-house-for-a-small-fee operation, having a solid foundation in Aviation Safety and Risk Management is key. There are many aspects to both of these, which are beyond the scope of this article to mention, but it starts simply, basic data collection.

Keep a journal of your build, write down your thought and decision-making process on everything, why did I select this autopilot, why did I buy this type and brand of servo, why did I buy this tool and so on and so forth. Keep the journal private or start a thread in a forum or keep a blog, whatever suits you, as long as you have a record of these things to go back on. Keep a flight logbook, even if you begin with only noting down the weather during the flight and flight time, once you get used to the process it gets quicker and you can add more and more details every flight.

Hazards should be identified before any manufacturing, building or flying takes place. Write down what the hazards to the safe operation of your system are. This can be anything from the predominant weather in the area you plan to operate in, to the big power lines that are in the vicinity. The list can start off as basic or complex as you’d like and may even include things such as the type of connectors you use on control surfaces and the like. Once you have identified possible hazards to your operation, explain how you plan to deal (mitigate) with each of these hazards either by the way you fly or by the types of equipment you use (e.g. metal gear vs plastic gear servos.)

If you have an incident in the field, even just an abnormality, such as an unexpected wing drop due to a gust of wind, make a quick note of it. Just something basic for you to reference later. When you have a bit of time after your day’s flying, spend a few minutes expanding on each logged incident, accident or abnormality. Why did this happen? Could I have prevented it, and if so, how? Was it weather related, equipment related, pilot related? No need to write an essay, just basic notes are a good start. This is a good foundation to start off with and will have the effect of making you a safer operator and/or hobbyist in the long run.

Even with big industry lobbying against small civilian UAS operations, if your data shows that you are ahead of the curve in terms of more than just basic and minimum adherence to published regulations, that you are serious about aviation safety and can show that you have and continue to identify and mitigate risks to an acceptable level, the regulators will have a much harder time in denying the small civil UAS market from operating.

(Ed – Much to my shame, Tiaan’s timely article made me realise that we don’t have a safety section at sUAS News. We do now. The Flyaway Club is assembling reports and will be a great source of information for incident reports)