It’s easy to fly a drone once, but to do it in a safe and repeatable manner takes experience and a plan. The good news about drone technology is that there is constant improvement in the safety, operational performance, and sensor capabilities. Even the most basic systems take much of the piloting skills out of the equation through modern advanced autopilots and integrated sensors. These systems can make even the most inexperienced operators successful the first time they take a drone out of a box and get airborne. That is great if you are a drone enthusiast or hobbyist but what happens if you are working for a client and something goes wrong? How would you know what to do? Do you rely on the system to make the decisions or do you guess and make it up as you go? Who is then liable for a mistake? The answer is to train to scenarios and situations so that you have a planned and prepared course of action should a mishap occur.
Drone reliability or mean time between failure information is difficult to assess. There is anecdotal evidence that the systems have a pretty high failure rate and because of the nature of the industry there is very little actual information shared to the public. From personal experience this technology has a very low mean time between failure. The mean time between failure or MTBF is defined as the time between a component failure that can cause a mishap. In aviation, this statistic is critical for deciding when to replace an engine or hinge on a wing for example. The manufactures MTBF is based upon testing and analysis to determine that a part can last for a specific number of hours and then at that point be replaced. For drones, we have no such data or statistics. We are then left with the concept of being a test pilot every time we fly. Without the knowledge of what is expected by the hardware we have no true understanding of how often our system put us at risk for a mechanical or software failure.
Drones are basically flying computers and no one has ever experienced a software crash before, right?
So where does that leave us? It puts a drone operator at great risk for having a mishap during some operation where there is real risk for a mishap. The FAA states that under the part 107 rules an operator can deviate from the rules in cases of an emergency. What is an emergency? Is lost communications with the drone and emergency? Is loss of an electric motor and emergency? Is losing sight of the drone an emergency? These are just some items that should be considered before starting any drone operation. Training and standardization coupled with a safety management system are critical to the success of any program.
Training in aviation never ends. There is the formal training where one is taught how to fly, i.e. the stick and rudder skills. When you pull on the stick the houses get smaller when you push forward the houses get bigger. These are the basics skills that enable one to be legal. However, being legal does not equate to being safe. Safety comes from experience and wisdom. Real learning in aviation comes from experience in the field and sharing of those experiences with fellow operators. This training is often informal, but it is this source of the wisdom that enables a newly licensed pilot to gain knowledge and understanding based upon real world applications not just what is covered in technical manuals.
We in the Drone community have failed in our ability to share and pass on operational knowledge. We have accepted technology that still has significant capability gaps in the earnest desire to pioneer and advance the industry. Fortunately, most drone operations are performed with small multi-rotors that pose a reduced risk and mishaps usually result with minor complications. But the risk is real and as the numbers of users grows the likelihood of a significant mishap grows. We are fortunate that the autopilots and manufacturers gain from advances in technology. The software continues to improve and that helps to keep our errors as pilots to a lesser amount which may offset the growing risk from a growing user base. But as much as we rely on technologic advances there are still gaps and it is the understanding of these gaps gained from training that enables good decision making and can save your program.
Training is a formal process that sets the standards and base line for any organization. We all go through training programs formally and informally every day. If you are learning a new software program, a new game, or how to cook there are foundations that need to be established so that success can be achieved. Flying a drone and running a drone program should not be considered anything different. By establishing a common set of standards and best practices through a training program one can achieve the functional mission goal in a safe and repeatable manner. Safety is the key element that should drive every drone operator to a training program. By learning what has been experienced from other professionals and industry experts the wisdom can be applied immediately. A good training program does not have to be complicated or costly and if done properly will pay for itself in the prevention of a mishap and long and safe flight career.