So you’re considering using drones in your company. But how do you go about creating a professional drone program?
This beginner’s guide to establishing a professional drone program in your company or organization will walk you through all of the things to consider. At the end, we’ll share an example to give you a real sense of what the process of creating a drone program might look like on the ground.
This guide provides you with an overview of how to create a drone program at your company, but many companies choose to hire UAS program experts to guide their efforts. We created this guide in collaboration with retired U.S. Navy Commander Frank Mellott, who works as a UAS program consultant to help companies create drone programs using his experience with Naval Aviation. So please consider this guide to be a primer, but know that there are folks out there like Frank who can help in a much stronger capacity.
Want to skip around? Here is a table of contents you can use to jump to the section that most interests you:
- Why It’s Important to Establish a Drone Program in Your Company
- The Safety Triad: Training, Operations, and Assurance
- Defining Your Mission and Mission Environment
- Risk Tolerance
- Governance Documentation: Training and Operations
- Governance Documentation: Assurance Program
- Example Drone Program
Whether you engage in construction, agriculture, mining, oil & gas, real estate, or car sales, aviation is not your core business. And because of that, if you want to use drones in your operations, there are some things you should think about to make sure you don’t find yourself on the wrong end of a conversation with the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
This guide is not intended as a cookbook approach to setting up a professional drone program, simply because each situation is different, and calls for its own unique governance documentation for training, operations, and assurance, which constitute the three parts of the safety triad (we’ll cover the triad a little later on in this guide).
Instead, this guide is meant to provide an overview of the items to consider when setting up a drone program at your company, which you can then take and customize to fit your specific situation and needs.
Why It’s Important to Establish a Drone Program in Your Company
Why is it important to establish a drone program in your company, instead of simply adding drones to the list of tools your company uses?
Simply put, because if anything bad happens related to the drone operations in place at your company, the company is the “deep pocket” that will be held liable in civil court. And you can bet that the plaintiff(s) will be using official reports from the FAA or NTSB on the event in question if they do decide to bring a case against your company.
When these two organizations investigate, they go through everything: your documents, your training, your operations, and your oversight of what your company is doing with drones. This is why it’s important to be buttoned up and have everything in order in a clearly established program before you start using drones in your company.
At a high level, creating and implementing a drone program at your company requires these steps:
- Think through what you want to do with drones, how you want to do it, and how you’ll exercise checks and balances on what you do.
- Write these things down in governance documents.
- Implement your training, operations, and assurance programs as you’ve laid out in those governance documents.
As complicated as all of this may sound, the good news is that it’s relatively straightforward to do things right when it comes to building a professional drone program. You do have to put in some work, but that effort will be well worth the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your drone program is organized and safe.
The Safety Triad: Training, Operations, and Assurance
In Naval Aviation, key considerations for safety and professionalism are grouped into a triad that can be viewed as forming the two sides and base of a triangle.
These three areas of consideration can be useful to guide the creation of governance documents to ensure quality and safety in any organization’s drone operations, whether for a private company or for the armed forces.
On one leg of the triangle is Training, on the other leg is Operations, and the base of the triangle is Assurance:
Training: The First Leg of the Safety Triangle
First, you train your drone pilots to operate in the way you want them to operate.
We’ll cover training in more detail in the Example Drone Program section of this guide, but, in brief, training covers listing the types of missions you want your drone pilots to fly, documenting the requirements for those missions, and then having your pilots fly practice missions that simulate the real ones they’ll be flying in the field.
Operations: The Second Leg of the Safety Triangle
Second, make sure your pilots and any supporting personnel operate in a way consistent with the training you’ve established.
This may require regular inspections, check-lists, and other routine protocol to ensure compliance in operations.
Assurance: The Third Leg of the Safety Triangle
Assurance closes the safety loop by checking up on the two legs of the triangle, and ensuring that any changes made to the existing process are reviewed before being incorporated into regular operations.
Assurance is important, but unfortunately all too often overlooked.
So what does assurance look like on the ground? Sometimes, there’s a good reason operations change—a new mission might call for a new protocol, or your team might learn a better way to do something, and so on.
When changes take place, the assurance process serves as the check to make sure training is updated to reflect these new missions or tasks. Assurance also checks in on operations. It’s common for people to drift away over time from the way they were taught to do something—flying a little higher, a little further away, not following checklists, or maybe just a little after dusk when you don’t have a night waiver.
In these cases, the assurance process, through regular checks, discovers these behaviors and corrects operations back to the original training, and thus back to your established standards.
Now that we’ve covered the safety triad, let’s take a look at defining a mission, and considering your mission environment.
Defining Your Mission and Mission Environment
In military aviation, everything starts with the mission, since the mission drives both the training content and the operational execution. And the same should apply for the planning you do when creating your company’s drone program.
Will you be taking real estate photos, running a perimeter, doing precision locating, getting a look at a job site layout, or something else? Each of these missions has very different requirements for precision, path, altitude, control, equipment, etc.
Only by putting some thought into mission definition will you figure out what your people need to be able to do, and thus how to train them.
Closely related to this is where you’re going to be performing these missions.
If you’re operating out in the middle of nowhere, it’s much easier than if you’re operating next to an interstate or near obstacles. It’s tougher to fly in cramped locations than in open ones, so if your mission requires that kind of flying, you need to make sure your training teaches people how to do it.
Because missions and mission locations can be quite different there isn’t one right answer, so “your mileage may vary” when it comes to defining your mission and mission environment.
Once you’ve established the mission and mission environment for your company’s drone operations, we turn to consider risk.
Specifically, how much risk are you willing to accept? Risk is more than just losing money or replacing your drone. It’s also about how much damage you’re willing to accept to your company’s reputation from an event that lands you in the news or causes the FAA and / or NTSB to come to visit.
A good way to consider the risk for your company’s drone operations is to sit down and talk about “What ifs?”
What if you crash the drone? Are you willing to accept the expense? What if it crashes into something and causes damage, or has a fly-away? Are you willing to cover the expense and put your company name on an NTSB report?
Or what if your drone crashes into one of your employees and they’re cut by a prop, requiring stitches—are you ready for the OSHA recordable report? And what if it hits someone else—are you ready for that personal injury claim?
These are just a few of the “What ifs?” you should be asking because the answers will define your risk tolerance.
These risk-related questions will also help you define operating limits for your drone program to define your company’s limits on operating conditions like weather, wind speed, or equipment go/no-go decisions.
All of this information will be included in the governance documents you create for your drone program, which we’ll be looking at in the next two sections.
Governance Documentation: Training and Operations
With your mission, mission environment, and risk defined, now it’s time to start putting things into writing.
Your training and operations governance documents address the two legs of the safety triangle (i.e., training and operations). They contain documentation on how you’ll train and certify your drone operators, how you’ll do your maintenance and repair, how you’ll operate your drones, and how you’ll document all of these things.
Why is it important to put all of this into writing? Because your policies and procedures are one of the key tools for managing risk—risk to your people and to your business.
These policies and procedures establish the limits you’ve established in order to control risk. Governance documentation controls risk by defining who can fly and who cannot, where and when they can fly and cannot, and what types of flying can and cannot be done.
Your training and operations governance documents should discuss your training program, your certification program, weather and equipment go/no-go parameters, maintenance program and processes, your oversight process (flight approval and risk management), flight and maintenance documentation, safety, and mishap or near-miss reporting.
Since mission, mission environment, and risk tolerance drive the depth and complexity of this section of your governance documents, they may be simple or they can be complex. There’s no right answer for everyone, and the specifics of your documentation will be determined by the specifics of the missions you’re flying, and the conditions you’re flying them in.
Governance Documentation: Assurance Program
Now that you’ve documented what your training and operations look like, you need to establish a process for verifying that you’re doing business, flying drones and documenting your operations and related data in the way that you said you would.
This verification is what we call assurance, and this portion of your governance documents addresses the base of the safety triangle, including information on who will check the two legs of the triangle (i.e., training and operations), how they’ll do this, and how often.
Nobody is perfect, and human behavior diverges over time, not unlike how a car may drift into a neighboring lane unless its course is corrected. Your assurance program is you checking your own program to identify discrepancies and make the necessary corrections.
Finding and fixing issues while they’re small, before they result in a mishap, is a hallmark of a top-performing program. An assurance program that is honest and isn’t afraid to document the occasional hiccup and fix it is one that earns credibility with regulators should they ever come knocking.
Now that we’ve covered all of the different factors to consider when creating a drone program, let’s look at an example to make all of this more concrete.
Example Drone Program
In the following example, Naval Aviation expert Frank Mellot walks us through how approaches the consulting process for a construction company creating a drone program for operations in a suburban setting.
Let’s assume we have a residential construction company that just got a big contract to build a number of homes in a new development.
The company’s owner wants to use drones in this work, and he wants to do more than the minimum in building his drone program. In fact, the owner wants to set the standard with the way his company uses drones, in the hopes that doing so will give him a competitive advantage for securing other work.
Mission and Mission Environment
To keep things simple, let’s assume the proposed work is in a suburban area and not in any kind of airspace that would limit drone use, and generally away from other complicating factors for UAV operations.
What this company wants to do with their drones (i.e., their “missions”) are:
- Track construction progress.
- Track materials deliveries (i.e. has the wood been delivered?).
- Map materials lay-down (what is where?).
- Identify locations for future materials or equipment deliveries.
- Ensure room for equipment to operate in / around the worksite.
- Check for latent safety hazards.
After going through their risk discussions, and going through a whole bunch of “What ifs?”, the owner decides that he’s not worried about using a drone, either from a loss or damage perspective.
The owner also decides that if one of his drones does damage something, or if he has a flyaway, his insurance will cover the damage, and he’s willing to make NTSB reports if required.
But, of course, he still wants to minimize the risk of injury to the lowest level possible, and this desire will be reflected in the governance documents he creates.
Governance Documentation—Training and Operations
Now we sit down with the owner and determine the scope and environment for his company’s drone missions, which will define his training and operations.
What kind of photos / video will be required to accomplish each of the missions?
Does he need photos only? Video only? Or some mix? From what altitude and distance? Once you know the profile for each mission, it’s pretty straightforward to figure out what the training will look like.
At the end of your training program, the drone operator(s) should be able to fly each of these missions well so that the company’s owner gets what he needs out of each mission. To make sure you minimize risk in training, supporting documentation describes how training will be conducted in a remote area with simulated photo tasks.
After documenting training, missions, and profiles, we’ll start folding in risk tolerance.
Establish your weather minimums, wind limits, equipment go/no-go criteria, preflight checks and checklists, in-flight pre-mission checks and checklists, profile deviation limits, post-mission checklists, the debrief process, documentation requirements, and internal near-miss/mishap reporting.
We also work with the owner to establish exclusion zones to limit risk to other people, and to establish the conditions under which a flight will be required to abort the mission and land.
These training and operations governance documents will layout our normal procedures, emergency procedures, maintenance procedures, required record keeping, and mishap reporting.
Lastly, we’ll write down who and how flights will be approved (the “flight schedule”), and how the owner wants to use visual observers (if at all).
Governance Documentation—Assurance Program
In this case, let’s assume the owner wants to keep their assurance program simple.
If that’s the case, the owner’s assurance governance documents may say that he’s the one who will check the proficiency of operators—he’ll do not less than one spot check every six months, and he’ll record his observations, along with any corrective action that may have been required.
He’ll review maintenance records on each spot check, and observe actual maintenance in progress at least twice a year.
Lastly, the owner adds that all documents will be reviewed annually by him, and once every three years he’ll bring in an outside evaluator to get an independent review.
Once this documentation has all been created, the drone program now exists on paper. The next step is to start training and operating, and then to implement your assurance processes. And there you go—you now have a professional drone program up and running.
In summary, this isn’t difficult, but it does take time and planning. Like anything worth doing, it’s worth doing right. You’ll be glad you did.