Everywhere you look you see mention of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Like any new technology, the hype is significant. In its latest annual Hype Cycle report, IT research firm Gartner places “autonomous vehicles” near the apex of its Peak of Inflated Expectations. This article cuts through those expectations by outlining several keys to success for those wanting to deploy UAS within their organization.
Issue 1: Familiarize Yourself with UAS Platforms
There are 100s of platforms available, ranging from fixed wing to rotary wing, open source to commercial, consumer grade to professional. System design and sensor configurations also range wildly based on the desired applications. Keep several things in mind when looking for a professional system:
- You will need more than one, unless you intend to only do one type of job with your UAS. Some manufacturers offer hot swap-able payloads, but different platforms offer different capabilities.
- Redundant systems are essential: The unit should have a backup flight controller, GNSS (i.e. ability to receive GPS, GLONASS or other systems) to help maintain a location lock. Consider systems that have a military spec communication protocol between the operator and the UAS.
- Get spare parts: You’ll need them. Understand the costs, how to go about ordering them, and especially how to make repairs.
- Evaluate warranty and support programs: Several people we’ve talked to have had catastrophic losses due to mechanical failures. An understanding of warranty and support programs is essential.
Issue 2: Get Insurance
Depending on how FAA’s proposed rule-making goes, insurance will likely be required to operate UAS for commercial purposes. You should budget $2,000/year to get $1M in liability coverage for each unit you are flying. To get hull insurance for the unit itself, you will likely have to document that your operator has 100+ hours of flight experience on that platform. Keep a log book! This coverage is typically another $2,000/year depending on the value of the unit. A list of some providers is noted on our web site.
UAS Insurance providers
- NationAir — http://nationair.com/
- Transport Risk management — http://www.TransportRisk.com/
- FGMK Insurance — http://www.fgmkinsurance.com/
- AeroTek — http://www.aerotek.com/
Issue 3: Develop a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)
A thorough SOP will ensure that all field staff working with the UAS will operate in a similar manner and it’s critical to obtaining a 333 Exemption and Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). The SOP should contain all checklists for pre-, during-, and post-flight operations. It should also discuss how you train your operators, safety protocols, and roles/responsibilities including both the operator and visual observers.
Issue 4: Basics of Aviation and Current UAS Regulations
All field crew should have a solid understanding of all aspects of aviation, including airspace requirements, Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs), sense and avoidance, weather, and visual observers, to name a few. Drone Training HQ provides a list of schools that offer various UAS programs for pilot training. Additionally, staying current on the regulatory requirements is a must. COAs are only for public agencies and are very time consuming to obtain. It can take weeks to simply get a login to begin the application process. 333 Exemptions are useful to the private sector for commercial use but can take months to develop and get approved, and then the organization must have a licensed pilot as an operator. The Notice of Proposed Rule-making (NPRM) for commercial use of small UAS is under consideration. The best case scenario is that Rule 107 will be in place by late 2016, and it will likely include operational limitations that include flying within visual line of sight of the operator, under 500 feet, during daylight hours, and not above those involved in the operation.
Issue 5: Select and Train Your Operators Carefully
So, what makes a good UAS operator? A UAS Operator needs to have strong knowledge in aviation as well as professionalism, attention to detail, and an ability to stay cool under pressure. Your organization should also document procedures and policies for flight, including items such as no flying under the influence of drugs or alcohol, no flying without appropriate sleep, and requiring a pilot to document all flights. Also, the operator should know that their decision rules when it comes to matters concerning whether or not to fly based on weather, equipment, or other issues.
Issue 6: Get Good At Data Management
UAS adds to the pressure of managing large data sets. It is commonplace to generate 200MB/minute of data from one UAS. That can easily increase to 2GB/min when shooting video or collecting data from multiple sensors. If you flew one unit for 4 hours/day you would generate 2.4TB/week. Data management hardware and procedures are critical.
Issue 7: Data Processing
Many experts agree that data acquisition is only about 20% of the process for producing actionable, derivative products. Software tools exist to semi-automatically derive DTMs, surfaces, and orthos, but that data does not constitute a bare earth surface nor do you obtain planimetric mapping that can be used within CADD packages for design and analysis.
Deriving products still requires skilled labor. As you consider adopting UAS into your organization, consider the issues above as guidelines to manage expectations, fly safely and guarantee successful end products.