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Best Practices: Documentation and SOPs
Posted on March 18
Best Practices: Documentation and SOPs
NOTE: This is the second in a series of blogs about best practices for drone programs
Kicking off a drone inspection program can be intimidating to the uninitiated. After all, you’re essentially starting a small Air Force. The FAA adds another regulatory agency you’ll have to comply with. Drones can be expensive, and the new set of challenges can feel overwhelming.
However, the benefits of drone inspection outweigh the headaches. When you start your own program, your level of control is total. You can customize procedures to fit the exact needs of your site (or sites), making it a very effective use of resources. And, to address the concerns of the prior paragraph, we have decided to create a few blogs about best practices to help you get started. This entry concerns documentation, SOPs and how they work together to ensure success.
Standard Operating Procedures
One of the most important early jobs of the chief pilot and/or program manager (see our blog on personnel) is to document the standard operating procedures, or SOPs. In the broadest sense, SOPs are the process for inspecting assets based on asset type. However, were it that easy, it no doubt would not get its own sub-heading. You will see SOPs tie everything together.
SOPs cover every aspect of the inspection process: equipment, set up, sequence of events, data type, image sequence, flight path, etc. A well-documented SOP should walk someone through exactly what will happen from the team arriving at the site until the reports are sent for review and archiving. The clearer, the better: clear procedures lead to good results. If the SOPs seem a bit pedantic you’re on the right track.
This precision is necessary because the SOPs do more than provide a to-do list or walkthrough: they establish a common language that all teams use to communicate about drone inspections. For instance, they lay out terminology, which is very important when occasionally a team must deviate from the SOPs due to a problem in the field (a downed power line, for instance). When everyone is using identical descriptions, it is easy to explain what actions were taken.
A mundane example might be the phrase “due on Monday.” Does this mean 12:01 AM? First thing in the morning? Any time on Monday? Monday close of business? Monday at 11:59 PM? That is a lot of confusion, even for a Monday. Good SOPs clear this confusion.
Every job should have a list of necessary equipment that is required to execute it efficiently. This should be documented because, let’s face it, it’s easy to get mixed up. If the checklist is honored, there’s never a situation where a team ends up in the field without something vital to get the job done.
Circling back to SOPs, checking the equipment would be an important part of the procedure. A fantastic way to think about this Santa. He’s making a list and checking it twice. No one is worried Santa is going to make a mistake because of the redundancy in his SOPs. Be like Santa.
Planning in general is very important, and the SOPs and documentation should reflect that. A team should know more-or-less exactly what they are going to do before a single drone is in the sky, including when a waiver will be required. Your SOP should clearly state the normal order of flights, and what should be accomplished on each flight. Situations can always arise that require the pilots to deviate from this norm, but having the plan in place is the foundation of efficient operations.
However, if you think of the now-tired idea of “visualizing” what you want as a means of ensuring success, then you have the general idea. The Secret works for aviation too.
Data Storage and Processing—Plus a Word on AI
There’s no question that high-res images are great tools for inspection. However (a lot of howevers in this entry), a 2 TB drive full of images called 0000011 (etc.) with no organization is about as useful as “guesstimating” if a turbine is working well. A jumbled drive of thousands of images is not a best practice.
The SOPs should lay out exactly how data is organized and have strict naming or folder conventions. Information you cannot easily find effectively does not exist. A human being is going to have to be able to call up the images to inspect them, archive them, and report about them. They cannot do this if tossed in a thumb drive full of unlabeled pictures. Thus, you must have a defined workflow: how are images taken, named, stored, and transferred to inspectors—plus what they will do after they have been inspected.
Speaking of inspectors: This is as good a place as any to discuss using AI for inspection. Right now, this is a work in progress for everyone—every image is training the algorithm. There are no AI inspectors that do not assume a human expert is going to check the work. This means that humans need to be part of the workflow. Perhaps one day you will be able to toss an algorithm a thumb drive and it will read geolocations so naming conventions can be relaxed. Today is not that day.
The SOPs should lay out exactly how information will be reported back. After all, that’s the point of all this, so it’s important to stay strong through the endgame. A standardized report or reports should be part of the SOPs, but there is more to reporting than that single document.
We’ve mentioned an idea before, but let’s state it in detail: inaccessible data effectively does not exist. Your data cannot be siloed—it must be available for any who need it in your organization. It cannot live on a USB stick or on an unconnected hard drive somewhere. Your reports should be easy to find and access. Furthermore, format is critical. The information they provide should combine easily with other sources of data (SCADA, etc.) to give a complete picture of a site, as wide as the entire operation and as narrow as a single asset—however it is required.
It cannot be overstated how critical SOPs are to a successful drone program, and how much other documentation interacts with SOPs. From inspecting the assets to reporting the results, SOPs are there to guide teams and keep everyone on the same page. As a teaser, it’s also critical to keep them updated, which we will discuss more in our training entry. Suffice it to say, good SOPs yield good results, but sloppy SOPs yield poor results. Luckily, unlike many market forces, this is entirely within your control.