7 Reflections from Running a UAV Pilot

Daniel Ronen
Mar 20 · 5 min read

In time, we expect the routine use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to become commonplace, helping to lift communities in the most remote and difficult to reach areas out of the consequences of poverty. Because of their ability to overcome constraints caused by inadequate (ground) infrastructure, and their potential for great flexibility of application, with including cargo delivery, data collection and situation monitoring, UAV’s are ideal for use in an exceptionally wide range of contexts and roles. However, before these benefits can be routinely experienced, there is much to do, learn, develop and prove.

Newcomers to this pilot can read my previous blog here, where I talk about UAVAid’s first test in Malawi.

Following our drone deployment in Malawi, we at UAVAid are keen to support the humanitarian UAV community with some of our reflections from the programme. We do this in the hope that others may benefit from our experience and that it advances the time when the responsible and widespread use of drones is commonplace.

Hansard UAV’s at the Kasungu Aerodrome

1) Get a guide

First and importantly we thank UNICEF Malawi for their help and support with the programme. What became very clear from the entire process was the impact and importance of having local knowledge, support and advice to help navigate local issues. In this case, UNICEF provided key guidance and assistance with a range of local logistical and practical issues as well as supporting the application processes for flight permissions and approvals with the Malawian Civil Aviation Authority and the Malawi Revenue Authority.

Although this assistance could not in itself guarantee a trouble-free deployment and flight programme, as we saw with the fuel contamination issue outlined previously, a great many potential issues were avoided through their advice and support. From our experience we would suggest that for any similar drone project deployments, there could be great value in having local support to assist with navigating the local context.

2) Engage the Malawi Authorities

We would also like to take this opportunity to convey our thanks to the Malawi Aviation Authority and other government bodies for their support and encouragement. The establishment of the Kasungu aerodrome, around which the drone testing corridor is based, is a great achievement and the regulators worked hard to support our deployment and use of the facility. Our experience has also shown their flexible approach to the development, exemplified by the welcome the Hansard UAV was given, having been advised that it was the largest aircraft to use the corridor to date.

3) Certificate of Airworthiness — leave plenty of time!

As the first (humanitarian) multi-role UAV to be granted an official Certificate of Airworthiness (EF) by an EU Civil Aviation Authority, we have been pathfinding air safety and regulatory engagement for the sector. The award of this level of certification was a major achievement and it is a key milestone for any aircraft to be able to demonstrate an internationally recognised safety-case approval of its standards of technology and procedures. However, it should be noted that the work involved in the development and preparation of the engineering, procedures and documentary submissions to the authorities, to the standard required to satisfy the understandably high bar for approval, was a lengthy and resource demanding process that we would suggest is not for the ‘faint hearted’.

4) Don’t take fuel for granted

Since our return from Malawi, we have had opportunity to further investigate issues of fuel contamination. Separate to the chemical contamination issue (see previous post), we wish to encourage all users of gasoline in remote and rural areas to inspect the containers (jerry cans etc) for condition, before use. As can be seen from the photograph below of fuel tank filters, we encountered rust particles in the fuel of one of our tanks (filter on the left). As expected though, the various filters did their jobs and all particulate matter was contained well away from any sensitive areas and did not impact on the performance of our aircraft, but as can be seen — Don’t take anything for granted.…

Fuel Filters Doing Their Jobs

5) Programme Management and Preparation — work smart and remove dependencies!

As with many regulatory processes that are done for the first time (from both sides), institutional learning can sometimes be a steep curve and will not necessarily a quick process. Regulation at the frontier can be subject to change and adaptation is required at sometimes fairly short notice. We would recommend that because procedures or systems may change or take significantly longer than expected, regulatory and/or approval processes should be decoupled from dependence on each other, as much as possible. It may also be prudent to run parallel approvals / regulatory compliance tracks, with minimised interconnectedness or dependency, so that any delays on one track will have only limited impact on the overall programme.

6) Is more always better?

There is always a difficult balance to strike when it comes to programme length. Longer deployments provide more opportunity for learning as well as being easier to build in a time buffer to compensate for unexpected events. However, deployments will typically have a cost element that grows with duration length. Longer deployments = bigger costs.

This means that time is always precious and there is a temptation to try and pack in as much as possible. It is important to consider carefully the balance between what is programme critical and what is ‘nice to have’. The key issue relates to if any, or indeed how many, nice to have’s have the potential to risk becoming a distraction from the critical elements, and risking the overall programme success. Understanding this and striking the right balance can be a difficult process but certainly have the opportunity to improve the overall project robustness.

7) Be Prepared and Learn from experience

Finally, our last reflection takes its inspiration from the motto of the Scouting movement, ‘Be Prepared’. There is no substitute to careful planning and solid preparation. Not because the plans will always work out exactly as expected or desired, but because the planning and preparation process is in itself beneficial in building strength and robustness.

It builds levels of resource understanding and competence that place the organisation in a stronger position to be more flexible in dealing with the unexpected. By way of example, careful consideration of the spares lists, and the striking of the right balance between ‘playing it safe’ and the scale of the footprint required, can be difficult. It is therefore important to spend enough time to consider the probability and consequences of the spares requirements, against the backdrop of the commercial and logistical footprint of each.
Each deployment or meaningful experience should allow a period of reflection afterwards to learn from the experience and embed that learning in the organisation for next time.

Bon voyage!!

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Dept. for International Development to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

Daniel Ronen

Written by

Co-founder of UAVAid Ltd. a UK based developer of multi-purpose drones for humanitarian and development applications.

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Dept. for International Development to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade