Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), otherwise known as drones, have become quite accessible and common across many industries. Many challenges and questions regarding the use of sUAS remain. It may seem simple to start using this new and exciting technology but, once you move from hobbyist to professional, there are several important factors to consider. This article covers most of what you need to know when starting your sUAS program. The topics we discuss include regulations and waivers, safety, equipment, software, training, data, and, most importantly, how to overcome these challenges and build a successful program.
Before we begin, let me introduce myself. I served in the Maine Army National Guard as a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the 126th MEDEVAC Company. I hold Commercial and Instrument ratings in both aeroplanes and helicopters as well as a Remote Pilot Certificate. My years of aviation and training experience provide a solid base for teaching both new and seasoned pilots.
At Captive Drone Technologies, we regularly complete real-world drone operations and training for clients in a variety of industries with a focus on utilities. Our instruction and operations are safety-first, emphasizing proper technique and thorough understanding of regulations. I hope you find this article valuable. If you have questions about getting started with drones in your industry, we are happy to help.
Before starting an sUAS program, it is vital to understand the regulatory environment encompassing commercial drone use in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration is the government agency responsible for regulating the use of airspace in the US. For commercial drone operators, the Code of Federal Regulations part 107 provides guidance and laws regarding the use of sUAS. These laws are relatively new and are frequently updated. Technology is also rapidly growing, so additional changes are likely. As technology develops and safety increases, these regulations will eventually ease. In fact, some companies are already taking steps to further integrate sUAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) by utilizing tools such as ADS-B.
The FAA has been, for a time, in an educational phase. If a deviation from the rules was discovered, they would correct the operator but not necessarily issue penalties. Recently they have shifted to an enforcement-focused policy. The consequences for breaking regulations are strict – you could lose your pilot certificate, or your organization might be barred from operating drones entirely. Ignorance of the law is no longer an excuse.
Diving even deeper, state and local regulations place further restrictions on drone operations. Privacy concerns have grown as both consumer and commercial drone use has increased, and regulation changes are likely to follow. For organizations operating across multiple municipalities or states, understanding these additional requirements is vital.
Flight operations on government property also come with their own unique considerations. The ebb and flow of international relations can result in plenty of high-impact changes: the American Security Drone Act of 2019 recently passed the House and seeks to ban the purchase and use of Chinese-made drones by US Government agencies. This sort of change has the unintended consequence of causing distrust and confusion amongst consumers. An understanding of not only the laws but their intent as well is key to maintaining a secure and legal operation.
Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA)
A common question we hear from organizations looking to start an sUAS program regards flight Beyond Visual Line of Sight or BVLOS. This topic seems to be the buzzword of the commercial drone world and is often the focus of those working to integrate drones into their operations. I admit the ability to operate a drone BVLOS would be a boon for those inspecting infrastructure such as power transmission lines or pipelines. However, an industry-wide solution to BVLOS requirements is likely years away. Here’s why:
The basis of all flight, apart from Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), is maintaining a visual clearance of obstacles and other aircraft. Manned aircraft pilots accomplish this by looking outside the aircraft, relying on guidance from Air Traffic Control, and by use of onboard tools such as ADS-B and Radar.
Unmanned aircraft are missing the key component of the see-and-avoid method: the onboard pilot.
Civilian UAS are operated by a remote pilot located on the ground utilizing a remote controller. Often, the only onboard method of visual clearance is an RGB Camera mounted on a gimbal or affixed in a forward-facing position. This limitation is greater than it may seem at first glance. Imagine driving a car from your house to work and only being able to navigate and avoid other vehicles by using a camera mounted to the front bumper. Now, imagine doing the same thing but in a three-dimensional environment with additional hazards such as overhead wires or trees.
Technology will continue to adapt, and we may see a solution developed that will drastically increase an sUAS operator’s situational awareness. Whether any improvement will be enough to assuage lawmakers’ and administrators’ safety concerns is unclear. With that said, some regulations are much easier to receive waivers for. Flights conducted at night or within controlled airspace are two such examples. The process to receive approval for these waivers can be long and complex but using prior waiver requests as a starting point can expedite the process.
To operate an sUAS for hire in the United States, you are required to pass an FAA knowledge test and receive your Remote Pilot Certificate. The FAA knowledge test consists of 60 questions covering topics such as regulations, airspace, weather, and flight operations in the National Airspace System. As highlighted by the previous two sections of this article, these topics are complex and likely unfamiliar to non-pilots. Some individuals may find that self-study, strict reading of CFR part 107, and review of FAA educational materials is enough to pass this test. Most will need training. Captive Drone Technologies has spent countless hours developing and implementing comprehensive remote pilot training for just this reason.
A thorough understanding of the regulations and proper operation will allow you to be safe, efficient, and successful on the test and on the job. My recommendation is that you take in-person training or classroom-based course. These options provide benefits that others may not: the ability to interact with the instructor, hands-on training, instant responses to questions, and teaching styles that can adapt to individual student’s learning styles.
You can also take an online course or a video course that teaches you the material. This may be an option for experienced pilots who need to study for the test, learn drone-specific regulations, or as a post-training study tool. These online courses provide a great study tool but are not nearly as good as classroom training for primary instruction. There are video lectures, audio, written information, and practice exams available from paid and free sources. Some courses offer an opportunity to ask questions from instructors, but answers are rarely provided in real-time.
Regardless of the method of instruction, choosing a comprehensive course is critical for both passing the test and for the success of your drone program.
Standardization and Safety
Once you have passed the test and received your Remote Pilot Certificate, you are legally allowed to operate drones for hire; however, the environment that commercial drones operate in are often complex and necessitate further training. The most glaring example of this is what we refer to as the wire environment. Overhead wires such as utility transmission or distribution lines are difficult, if not impossible, to see from a manned aircraft.
As discussed earlier, the visual clearance and situational awareness of a drone operator is more restrictive than that of a manned aircraft pilot. Additionally, drones are required to operate within 400 feet of the ground which places them near hazards, such as wires or vegetation. These two factors greatly increase the risk to drones and, consequently, operating an sUAS in the wire environment is the single riskiest undertaking for an sUAS Remote Pilot.
The dangers encountered by sUAS operators call for additional training beyond the basic understanding of part 107 regulations. There’s no substitute for experience, and thorough training of standard procedures in the wire environment is critical for a safe and effective program.
Before you can train to standards, those standards must be created. As of now, there are no industry-wide Standard Operating Procedures for sUAS pilots. The responsibility for creating the standards to which sUAS operations must conform is on the drone operator or industry professionals. Operating without an SOP can, as aviation history has shown, result in accidents.
Flying is an inherently dangerous act and, while drones remove the human from the aircraft, the human factor is still present and sUAS still pose risks to people and property. This is especially true when operating near critical infrastructure or in populated areas. With all of that said, leveraging experts to develop clear Standard Operating Procedures is the best path forward until an industry standard can be developed and implemented.
Hardware and Software
Let’s take a step back from the weedy discussion of regulations and safety to talk about the equipment needed and the common questions and pitfalls associated with choosing hardware and software solutions. A cursory internet search for drones returns hundreds, if not thousands, of options.
Manufacturers have sprung up around the world to develop innovative drone technologies. For the end-user, this only increases the uncertainty about which solution is best. DJI is clearly the industry leader as far as sales go but there are options available that, for certain operational requirements, could prove better.
Trial and error were common in the early days of commercial drone operations when experience was lacking and many of the hardware solutions were untested. Many drone operators now have experience with a significant number of platforms and can provide guidance in the selection of equipment based on mission requirements. There is no need to rely on trial and error or advertisements to decide which platform to use – experienced operators have this knowledge to share.
As the operating environment and tasks become increasingly complex, software solutions become necessary to increase safety and ensure precise data collection. From data management and processing to automated flight and inspection, software is an important part of any drone operation.
Software options can be broken down into two categories: flight management software and supporting software. Flight management software has been developed by drone manufacturers and other companies and provides automation to increase safety and decrease pilot workload. Features such as autonomous flight, machine learning, AI, and real-time inspection annotation are examples present in several available software solutions.
Which option you ultimately choose depends on a combination of cost, features, and compatibility with hardware.
Supporting software includes image manipulation software, inspection annotation software, GIS software, and asset management software, to name a few. Many of these solutions may already be in use by your organization, but gaps in the inspection and analysis process may exist that these solutions fill.
Choosing a robust, expensive platform may prevent you from realizing the best ROI possible. Choosing a platform that is missing key features could hinder your efficiency. It’s important that you choose the right software for your organization and needs from the beginning.
Making Data Valuable
Before you can utilize software and analyze your data, you need to collect it. We want to prioritize two things: collecting good data and collecting the right amount of data. Good data meets a few criteria including clear images, accurate geotagging, collection in a uniform order, and ensuring the subject of the inspection is captured fully. Good data allows you to quickly organize and analyze and prevents the need to reinspect the asset.
Bad data can hamper a drone program. You could have to redo portions of the inspection or miss potentially catastrophic faults. In the long run, bad data creates more work and streamlining this process is essential. It is important to know and implement the best possible collection methods.
Getting it right from the beginning saves time and money.
Utilizing drones for inspections comes with its own challenges. One of these challenges is the large amount of data that you will collect when compared to traditional inspection methods. It is important that you develop a process to manage this data, be it an off-the-shelf solution or otherwise. This process should also be secure in order to protect your data as well as key infrastructure.
To make sense of all the data you collect, you need to organize and analyze this information. This can be an arduous process, but it does not have to be. You do not want to have to search through potentially hundreds of folders and thousands of files to find the image you’re looking for. Success requires strong organization and a clear path for your data to follow. There are software options that can help with this aspect and even load your data into an existing GIS or EAM platform.
Once the data is organized, you can begin an analysis. The analysis, for the most part, will consist of trained individuals visually reviewing the data for anomalies. I have seen some promising solutions that leverage machine learning to automate parts of this process and have no doubt that, as this technology develops, the workload for the analyst will continue to decrease.
Finally, the biggest piece of the data puzzle: the data needs to be in a format that can be easily ingested by EAM and GIS systems or built into a report. There are solutions to make reporting easier and, as the industry continues to grow, more will become available.
The Captive Drone Solution
We have discussed what you need for a successful drone program, but how do you get started? First, decide if you want to piece the program together yourself or if you want outside help. In the long run, leveraging the expertise of others to build your program will save money and eliminate the trial and error aspect of your program development. These same experts can also be leveraged to consult on smaller parts of your larger program, depending on your need.
Once you have a plan for your program and an idea of your goals, find quality training from expert instructors. Training forms the foundation on which the rest of your program depends. Instructors who provide recurrent and advanced training are ideal but mixing and matching can be effective.
Captive Drone provides a complete solution here, offering in-person and online programs for part 107 training, advanced wire-environment courses, thermography training, and others.
Next, you need to select proven and trusted equipment. As mentioned before, the hardware and software you select will largely depend on your industry, operational requirements, and budget. Again, finding experts and leveraging their experience and industry knowledge can remove a lot of uncertainty.
Once you have your training and your equipment, documentation comes next. You need to develop
Standard Operating Procedures, Emergency Procedures, and Safety Guidelines. These allow you to track the effectiveness of your program, maintain safety, and successfully integrate new pilots as the program grows. Risk management is key: an incident for a new drone program can weaken the trust required when implementing new technology.
At this point, you have a well-rounded program and should identify if your mission will require a COA or waiver. Many organizations will need routine access to controlled airspace in their area of operation.
Airspace and night flight waivers are the most common, but each program will have specific needs. You may find that no waivers are necessary but having one in place “just in case” can be beneficial. A utility company utilizing drones for storm damage assessment would greatly benefit from the ability to operate at night. A company repairing a bridge within a major metropolitan area would find an airspace waiver to be valuable.
Having developed an SOP and other program documents, you will now need to continuously ensure the documents comply with local and FAA regulations. This is simplified by utilizing an SOP designed to meet regulations, but changes to rules are frequent and monitoring developments is important. Regular review and revision of these documents is required to maintain compliance. This can be managed internally or through a partnership with experts like Captive Drone.
Finally, you need to integrate sUAS operations with your current workflow. If you’re a utility, for example, you need to decide how to enhance your current maintenance and reliability programs to utilize the new data you collect. This part is easier for some organizations and mainly depends on the size and complexity of your mission.
There are other considerations beyond what was mentioned in this article, such as insurance or ROI, but those topics are very industry-specific. I hope that the information provided here is beneficial and that, if you are serious about utilizing drones, you are successful every step of the way. Captive Drone Technologies is a company dedicated to helping organizations establish in-house drone programs. If you have questions, concerns, or want help getting a program started we are here for you.
For inquiries about how to get started with Captive Drone, give us a call at (844) 526-5600.