Professionals in various industries have seen how the proper implementation of drones can mitigate safety concerns, but that can only happen when a proper safety management system (SMS) is created. How is that SMS developed? Should organizations document their best practices? What is at risk when these issues are not properly dealt with?

These were the topics of discussion on episode #43 of the Commercial Drones FM podcast - Drone Operational Standards Are Your Friend with Harrison Wolf. During the episode, Harrison and host Ian Smith discuss how focusing on being a safe, compliant drone company can lead to huge rewards which will ultimately benefit individual operators and entire organizations.

I caught up with Ian to talk about what kind of safety culture should ideally exists within an organization, how standards related to safety issues will impact the industry as a whole and how drones will become a bigger part of the classroom in the coming years. Read through the additional insights Ian provided before or after listening to the podcast below. You can also listen to the episode on iTunes or GooglePlay.


Jeremiah Karpowicz: Harrison laid out some great advice around how contract drone pilots should approach working with large organizations. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve seen service providers struggle with around this topic?

Ian Smith: The biggest point of contention seems to be the adjustment of drone service providers understanding that they're now essentially running a commercial flight department that is sanctioned by the FAA. Of course you've got to play by their rules but you also need to understand the bigger picture that in order to get (likely) the best paying jobs and biggest contracts with large businesses, you'll need to demonstrate your commitment to compliance, standards, and safety.


As Harrison mentioned, operators are going to need to become familiar with Safety Management Systems (SMS), but those details can and should stem from the safety culture that should already exist, shouldn’t they? Does that mean the establishment or refinement of this safety culture should be the first step in this process?

This is a tough question, as every business will approach it differently. Harrison laid out a great plan for developing your own SMS program as a drone operator which starts by writing a paragraph about why safety is important to you. It helps to set the tone and put something in stone. Just by doing that simple step sets you up for a great start and differentiates you from those who might not put as much focus on safety. I'm not sure what specific step it should be but it should be at least one step in the process. If an SMS program hasn't yet crossed your radar, be thankful that it now has. As this industry matures, these internal programs could be a critical piece in establishing the maturity of your organization and proving that you're not just a flash in the pan.


I thought the point about red flags associated with drone service providers who say they’re more than willing and able to do things like fly at night was a great one, because that kind of enthusiasm should give a hiring organization pause. That said, where is the line between being willing to go the extra mile for a potential client and going too far?

So the PIC (pilot in command) always has the final say in what happens with an aviation operation. That means whoever is the PIC for a specific flight has absolute final say. There are published minimums and maximums (400 feet above ground level, 100 miles per hour, etc) and then there are personal and company policy minimums. It can be a good step to set a precedence that your company or you as a PIC do not fly in 40+ knot winds. Obviously, this is not black and white and there are gray areas everywhere but having the self-awareness to set and understand how these minimums enhance your safety and the safety of your client cannot be overstated. Going too far will always be either breaking the law or causing an accident.

In what way will the development of standards related to issues like logging impact the entire drone industry?

Proper logging of flights will help in a variety of ways. Insurance premiums could be reduced, operational accountability will increase, incidents and accidents should decrease due to higher awareness, and the overall perception of the drone industry will improve. Getting down to it, it's a fundamental culture shift that has to happen at the organizational level when getting into this business. Readers of this may get the impression that I'm doing a lot of preaching and hemming and hawing but my perspective on this all stems from my time as an FAA-certified commercial helicopter pilot. Today, that manned pilot's certificate is actually not that different than an unmanned pilot's certificate except for feet on the ground or feet in the air.


We’ve taken a look at how drones are being used in the classroom, but Harrison’s “SMS for drones” class sounds like it’s a powerful to way to get the next generation of operators aware of some critical issues. How do you see drones working their way into the classroom over the next few years?

Hats off to Harrison for pioneering this teaching in the classroom and to USC for facilitating this. I'm jealous of the students these days who get to use flying robots in their educational pursuits. They're such a great way to learn about an incredible variety of topics—which is one of the reasons why the drone industry is so interesting. You can learn about mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, aerospace engineering, regulatory concerns, privacy concerns, safety, photogrammetry, industries from agriculture to construction, economies of scale, and more. They're so diverse and represent so many possibilities. I love initiatives like Parrot's Education program that helps teachers get started with incorporating drones into the classroom. There are even professional degrees you can earn in unmanned systems from universities like Embry-Riddle and Utah Valley University.