Drone Program Best Practices—Personnel

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Posted on March 11

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NOTE: This is the first 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. The first entry concerns personnel.

 

Program Manager/Chief Pilot

Although it is possible to assign these roles to different people, mose nascent programs will use one person for both. As such, we will discuss them as one role, referring to the combination as chief pilot. This is because it is definitely best if this person has aviation experience of some kind. You can call them “Chief” if you want; they tend to like it because it sounds cool. And let’s face it: it is cool.

The chief pilot leads the program, balancing FAA and other regulations with the business needs of the operation. The FAA rules for drones are constantly evolving, so the ability to understand the impact of new regulations on the program is critical. The chief pilot should also oversee the training of teams, as much of this training will involve understanding regulations and—for pilots—passing the FAA Drone Pilot Tests and maintaining records. 

Scheduling crews is a big part of being chief pilot. Thankfully, the rules for drone pilots are less stringent than those governing manned aircraft, but they are not inconsequential. This is another area where knowledge of both regulations and business drivers is key. In this same vein, the chief pilot also must develop the initial Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for drone inspection. We will delve more deeply into SOPs and training in a future entry. The chief pilot is also responsible for complying with airspace permissions.

 

Lead Pilot

The lead pilot is the head of a drone team and oversees their day-to-day operations. Like the chief pilot, this role requires being a certified drone pilot. Where the chief must focus on regulations and business drivers, the lead pilot must have a deep understanding of the assets they are inspecting... and also regulations (no one is free from regulations). 

A large part of their job is doing the actual piloting, of course—data collection. Connected to this is data processing,  packaging and handoff to inspectors. Organizational ability is a big plus in this role. 

Lead pilots will also apply for waivers when needed and ensure the SOPs are being met. When the SOPs cannot be followed—a problem in the field, for instance—the lead pilot will document the reason and the new actions taken. This is another place where understanding the asset is key, because knowing WHY a certain set of images must be captured will make creating an alternate plan much easier.

The lead pilot should also be able to perform regular maintenance in the field. 

 

Visual Observer (VO)

The VO is a crucial part of the drone team, even though their hands may rarely touch the controls. They serve as a second set of eyes, assisting the lead pilot, and focusing on keeping the drone in the air as much as possible. 

Ideally, the VO is also a pilot, ensuring understanding of what the lead pilot is doing at any given minute. They watch the skies for anything that may impede the drone: other drones, wildlife, and “non-participants,” which sounds ominous but basically means things not involved with the regular operation of flight. If you’re thinking of Goose in Top Gun, you’re pretty much on the money.

The VO is also a buffer between the lead pilot and distractions, allowing the lead to focus their entire effort on piloting. This is a critical safety measure. They also oversee battery management, which will be included in a future entry, and is also critical to successful drone inspection.

 

Inspectors

The final critical member of a drone team is an inspector (or inspectors). While the task of the inspector (to view the images) is straightforward, there are other ways they can benefit the drone team.

Whether in the field or viewing remotely, the inspector can help the drone teams get excellent results by providing feedback on how the images are coming in, or the angles used to capture them. They can also provide guidance on camera settings by reporting back which work best for which image. 

The complete duties of inspectors, and the rules that govern them, are beyond the scope of a single blog entry to report, but they are as much a member of the team as a pilot. If the team makes t-shirts, the inspector should definitely get one.

 

Optional Crew Members

A sensor operator is not always necessary, but definitely good to have. Some sensors require specific training for operation. The sensor operator is on hand to ensure the data coming in is correctly collected. They would also be responsible for maintaining the sensors, as specialized knowledge is typically required. A sensor operator can also serve as a secondary VO.

A contractor coordinator is something of a fluid position. If your operation is using both in-house and third-party teams, someone needs to serve as a point of contact to ensure a smooth workflow. The contract coordinator works to ensure contractors follow the established SOPs as well, ensuring a continuity of data. This role may be filled by the program manager.

 

Conclusion: A Drone Team is a Flight Team

Although usually not as large as a manned aircraft, a drone is still very much an aircraft, and can be dangerous or inefficient if not handled correctly. These key members of a drone team ensure safe, reliable and cost-effective inspection of assets that, in the past, would have been dangerous or laborious to perform. 

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