This article will cover the role of a Visual Observer (VO) in drone flights ops, and how to make sure your VO is sufficiently trained.
First we’ll discuss what a VO is and why you might want to use one, and then we’ll take a deep dive into how to train a VO.
What is a Visual Observer (VO)?
A Visual Observer (VO) is an optional crew member for a flight mission who serves as a second set of eyes, monitoring the drone in flight in order to support the Remote Pilot in Command (PIC).
Although a VO is not required by the FAA for regular drone missions—missions where the PIC is maintaining a direct visual line of sight with his or her sUAS—having one is certainly useful, and can help lessen the stress of a flight.
Why Use a Visual Observer
The main reason to use a VO is for greater situational awareness during a flight.
While the pilot needs to look back and forth from a screen, to the sky, to his or her hands, the VO can be there maintaining a line of sight with the drone at all times, ensuring that even in those micro-moments where the pilot has to look away the drone is still flying safely.
It’s important to emphasize that the role of a VO is not simple.
Just having an untrained observer standing nearby watching your drone in flight doesn’t cut it. If someone is performing the role of VO, it’s important that he or she be properly trained.
Just imagine the difference between someone frantically shouting, “Look out, a thing is flying somewhere nearby!” and someone calmly telling you, “Bird, twelve o’clock high, moving slowly away.”
Now let’s dive into the training itself.
Training Your Visual Observer
To make this resource easier to use, here is a table of contents so you can jump straight to your topic(s) of interest:
- What Situations Call for a VO?
- Restricted Airspace
- General VO Responsibilities
- Scanner VO Responsibilities
- Drone VO Responsibilities
- How to Scan the Sky
- VO Positioning
- Pre-flight Procedures
- Communicating During a Flight
What Situations Call for a VO?
A VO is a useful part of any drone mission, but at a minimum we recommend that a VO be used in the following situations:
- Where ground objects present hazards
- Where varied terrain or other factors may make it difficult for the PIC to maintain a direct line of sight
- For any flight in restricted airspace
The FAA provides guidelines on situations where a VO is mandatory (the bold is ours):
You must keep your drone within sight. Alternatively, if you use First Person View or similar technology, you must have a visual observer always keep your aircraft within unaided sight (for example, no binoculars). However, even if you use a visual observer, you must still keep your unmanned aircraft close enough to be able to see it if something unexpected happens. Neither you nor a visual observer can be responsible for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at a time.
Regarding restricted airspace, for missions being flown with special airspace authorization we recommend that, wherever possible, two visual observers assist the PIC.
For restricted airspace missions, the two types of VOs we recommend having in place are 1) A Scanner VO, and 2) A Drone VO.
The Drone VO’s role is to maintain a visual line of sight with the sUAS at all times. The Drone VO should always be ready to share the location of the drone with the PIC in case he or she ever loses the line of sight.
General VO Responsibilities
Simply put, the VO helps the PIC by communicating crucial information needed to ensure the safe operation of the drone.
Here is a list of general responsibilities for a Visual Observer:
- VOs should know about the scenarios that can impact flying conditions, including weather conditions, ground hazards, and airborne hazards.
- VOs should be aware of the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft (or Part 107) Regulations regarding flights over people and other prohibited activities, and support the PIC in flying within the bounds of what is legally permissible.
- VOs not only need to be able to identify issues in the sky, but direct the PIC to take the action necessary to avoid those issues.
- VOs should constantly scan the skies and the ground to identify potential hazards, and notify the PIC of those hazards as they arise.
It’s crucial for the PIC to trust the VO’s judgment, and immediately act on the VO’s advice without question. For this to happen the PIC must trust the VO, and the VO must honor that trust by providing accurate, timely information.
Scanner VO Responsibilities
For flights in restricted airspace, we recommend using a Scanner VO and a Drone VO.
The responsibility of the Scanner VO is to continually scan the skies, looking for any potential safety hazards.
The Scanner VO is also responsible for observing the ground and identifying anything there that could be of concern for the mission. If the Scanner VO sees people approach during an ongoing mission, it is his or her job to let them know that a drone is being flown nearby, and to ask them to clear the area.
Drone VO Responsibilities
The responsibility of the Drone VO is to maintain visual contact with the drone being flown at all times.
How to Scan the Sky
It’s important to have a procedure in place for how you’re going to scan the sky so that the VO isn’t simply looking all around, but is actually monitoring the airspace in a systematic manner.
Here is the process we recommend for scanning the skies:
- Begin your scan by looking at the 12 o’clock position, high in the sky.
- Scan from left to right, from the 9 o’clock to the 3 o’clock positions on the clock, making sure to cover the same points / airspace the PIC is currently flying in.
- Then, starting at the 3 o’clock position, look down and scan back to the left 9 o’clock position.
- If necessary, look farther downward and scan back to the 3 o’clock position.
- Rotate 180 degrees to scan the 3 to 9 o’clock position, covering 3 to 9 o’clock positions that are directly behind the PIC, using the same high/medium/low sky sections.
- Start over and repeat.
Of course, the VO also needs to use common sense, and all of his or her senses. If a noise alerts the VO to a potential hazard on the ground or in the air nearby, the cause of the noise should be identified and possible safety issues should be assessed immediately.
The VO should be close to the PIC, but not physically crowding him or her.
The rule of thumb here is that the PIC and VO should be close enough that they can hear each other clearly, but not so close that there is a danger they might bump into each other.
The VO should also be at a close enough distance to the PIC to ensure that no one else bumps into the PIC.
When flying in restricted airspace with two VOs, we recommend the Scanner VO stand on the right hand side of the PIC, at the 3 o’clock position, and the Drone VO stand on the left hand side of the PIC, at the 9 o’clock position. (This positioning is arbitrary—the two VOs can switch sides if that makes more sense for the mission you’re flying; what’s important is that each VO have a specific side.)
Pro Tip: The VO should keep in mind that, regardless of his or her position, the information relayed to the PIC should correspond with the PIC’s position, not the VO’s.
Before flying, the PIC should communicate with the VO and anyone else involved in the mission regarding:
- Operating conditions (includes things like weather, tree cover, or uneven terrain)
- Emergency procedures
- Contingency procedures
- Roles and responsibilities
- Potential hazards
The objectives of the flight, anticipated flight paths, and any unique potential hazards or safety issues unique to the locale of the flight should be covered by the PIC.
If there are any bystanders, they should be instructed on where they can safely observe the flight.
Weather should be checked, and the PIC should communicate with the VO and discuss any conditions that might affect the flight.
The PIC should go over the anticipated flight parameters and advise the VO of his or her responsibilities and communicate any special conditions or issues pertinent to the flight, as well as any special needs he or she might have for the specific flight.
Emergency procedures should be discussed and possible alternate landing locations identified. Before any flight, all parties should agree that there are no outstanding issues and the flight is ready to proceed.
Communicating During a Flight
In general, during a mission the PIC will be flying and the VO will be performing the duties laid out in the sections above that pertain to VO responsibilities.
Here are some useful phrases to use when communicating during a flight:
- “Approaching distance limit”—To be used when the VO is in danger of losing his or her line of sight with the drone.
- “Distance is a go”—To be used when the PIC has moved the drone back into a range where the VO can comfortably observe it.
- “Cannot locate”—To be used when the VO loses site / cannot locate the drone (the latter in response to the PIC’s command “Locate drone”).
- “Bring it down!”—To be used when the VO determines there is imminent danger and the drone needs to be grounded immediately.
- “Climb, climb, climb!”—To be used when the PIC needs to climb immediately to avoid an imminent collision.
- “Preparing to launch”—To be used when the PIC is preparing to launch.
- “Launching”—To be used when the PIC is launching.
- “Descending”—To be used when the PIC is descending for a landing.
- “Landing at new position”—To be used when the PIC is manually flying to a position that is not the original home position.
- “Locate drone”—To be used when PIC loses visual contact with the drone.
If either the VO or the PIC cannot locate the drone visually for a period longer than approximately 15 seconds, the PIC should initiate the Failsafe Return to Home function of the drone and alert all observers that he or she has done so.
Communicating Location and Movement
Clock coordinates should be used for locating hazards:
- 12 o’clock is straight in front of the PIC.
- 6 o’clock is immediately behind the PIC.
- 3 o’clock is 90 degrees to the PIC right.
- 9 o’clock is 90 degrees to the PIC left.
Use the locational words “high” and “low” to indicate the distance to or from the horizon.
It’s also important to note both the direction and speed with which the hazard is moving by saying “moving away slowly” or “moving closer rapidly”, etc.
The descriptors are very important here, because they help convey the urgency of the hazard. An object moving slowly away is much less of a concern than something moving rapidly closer.
Here’s an example of communicating the location of a potential hazard in the sky:
“Drone, 12 o’clock high, moving closer slowly”
We hope this resource has been helpful, and that you’ll consider using (and training) a Visual Observer (VO) for your next sUAS operation. The VO, while optional from the FAA’s perspective, can help to mitigate risk and to add an additional layer of safety to flight operations.
Hat tip to Rod over at Full Effect Productions for inspiring us to publish this resource. Many of the ideas in this guide were originated in a document Rod and his team put together for their own VO training, and we’ve been given permission to share. Full Effect Productions has been in business since 1996 and offers a wide variety of video services to folks in the Sioux City, Iowa area, including aerial / drone services.