In the process of gathering insights for reports that focus on specific UAV verticals such as surveying & mapping and precision agriculture, I’ve been able to connect with experts whose insights around drones are unmatched. It should be no surprise that every industry is impacted by this technology in a different way, but one thing that’s common among all of them is a focus and concern about the safe operation of a drone.
I wanted to be able to incorporate key details about safety into a few of those reports, and that’s why I reached out to Aaron Greenwald, President of the Unmanned Safety Institute
. The Unmanned Safety Institute, a subsidiary of ARGUS International, is a professional flight safety organization for operators, enterprises, and organizations focused on integrating and operating UAV safely for civil or commercial purposes, which made him the perfect person to ask some comprehensive questions around UAV safety. To learn more about operational safety, download USI’s whitepaper here
After talking with him, it quickly because apparent that the info he was laying out couldn’t be confined to a quick mention in one of those reports, so I seized the opportunity to expand on the topic. He took the time to participate in a full interview where I was able to ask him about how perceptions around drone safety have changed, where the ultimate responsibility around safety lies, how essential it is for operators to create a process that actively considers safety implications and plenty more. Jeremiah Karpowicz: In 2016, what sort of people are flying UAVs, and how has that impacted the way in which drone operators can fly?
Aaron Greenwald: The differences in UAS operators vary greatly by country, but in the United States we are seeing operators emerge from several specific areas.
- Hobbyist operators exist to fly their consumer UAS for recreation or fun. Sometimes, these operators determine that they can build and grow a business with their UAS, and when this decision is made and they are generating revenue or selling their services, the individuals become commercial operators.
- New start-up companies have emerged to service markets that will benefit from UAS technology, such as agriculture customers, oil/gas, power generation & transmission companies, etc. These flight services companies will eventually become recognized as Part 107 operators in the United States.
- Established enterprises are adopting UAS to add new services to their existing portfolios, or leverage the technology to meet internal needs.
With the proliferation of low-cost technology and wide market availability, everyone now enjoys access to UAS technology, which capable of serious consequences if handled inappropriately. The Unmanned Safety Institute recognizes the implications of these “safety gaps” and has introduced the same culture of safety enjoyed by professional airline pilots into the new world of UAS operations and our efforts are being met with positive results. Our approach to UAS safety is based on what works in commercial aviation: reducing human error, improving technology reliability, and building safe organizations. As a result of these time-tested approaches, accident rates in commercial aviation have gone down while air travel has increased. Our approach is a proven method, time-tested in commercial aviation and adopted for the UAS industry. Do users need to have a different or better understanding around safety in light of such widespread adoption of the technology? How has that impacted the outlook of your organization?
The tremendous growth in the use of UAS must be met with the understanding – and acceptance – that serious consequences will follow those without proper safety training in this field. We are finding after the initial shock of “non-aviators” being forced to look into the professional pilot’s world of regulations and procedures governing the airspace around us, they see the magnitude of the safety concerns staring back at them and embrace the safe practices that we teach them. We’re leading the charge and working hard to ensure all levels of UAS operators are aware of risks that UAS present. What kinds of opportunities have you seen this technology open up? Are you seeing many organizations be able to change or augment their services?
The opportunities are endless, and limited by one’s own imagination. Nearly every industry can benefit from UAS technology.
As an organization focused on safety, we believe that the most significant value-proposition is found in employing UAS to replacing tasks that would otherwise involve high-risk manned aircraft operations or place an individual in a dangerous situation. We consider UAS as tools to accomplish a specific pre-defined task. With the evolution of autopilot technology, miniaturization of sensor payloads, and commercial competition driving prices downward, UAS as a reliable technology platform is now increasingly available and affordable.
Militaries and governments around the world have been employing UAS for years, and we are now in the midst of an “commercial revolution” that is fueling widespread use of UAS in applications never before imagined, such as employing UAS as telecommunications relays or even utilizing UAS to collect highly-valuable weather data from supercell thunderstorms or measure hurricane environments. Speaking of those military applications, how have you seen the public’s perception of UAVs change, especially as it relates to commercial endeavors. Do many people still think of “drones” with a negative connotation?
The public’s perception of UAS is clearly shifting from “drones” as a weapon or tool of war, to robotic technology that can make us safer in the way we live and work.
Drones will always have a negative public connotation in war, but the technology is demonstrating to everyone watching that it can deliver exponential benefits to our everyday lives. This transformation is shifting the public perception of UAS from anger (towards “drones” used in war) to acceptance and approval (for UAS technology in civil and commercial applications).
One of the most striking transformations we are observing are the field trials of combat-proven UAS in the U.S. for public safety benefits, such as disaster response, or even combating wildfires to protect people and property. When it comes to safety procedures, what are the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered? How does the USI address those challenges?
Most companies or agencies are challenged with incorporating UAS into their current operations while simultaneously adapting to changes in regulations as this industry matures. We have seen everything from no Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for UAS integration to well-intended policy mentioning that UAS exist within their agency.
The biggest challenge from a safety perspective is exposing a non-pilot to a pilot’s world and then surgically imprinting into their operational thought-process years of “safety culture” training – instantly. Our core focus, adopted and modified from time-honored aviation safety practices, falls into three key thrusts: human factors, technology reliability, and safe organizations. Within the human factors focus, we instill into all our students a strong safety foundation that includes understanding the safety mindset, identifying hazards, preventing accidents, airworthiness of the operator, aeronautical decision making, and much more. How essential is it for professionals to adapt or create a process that includes proper safety precautions when using a drone?
It is not only essential but rather imperative for proper aircraft systems handling to be conducted carefully, professionally, and safely.
The two things that drive a successful business model in the commercial industry is profit, and everything else that helps create a profit. When safety is left out of that equation, you either become a part of the headline news or quietly go out of business and added to textbooks as an example of what not to do if success is your goal.
The level of risk within an industry usually drives the amount of effort to counter the risk. In aviation the risk is extremely high. Safety precautions are needed to minimize risk exposure and come in many forms. A few examples are maintaining proper Standing Operating Procedures (SOP), Emergency Response Plans (ERP), continuing education and recurring training, and maintaining currency on all rules, laws or regulations. Any professional organization will have these precautions already in place to operate, but it is sometimes difficult to infuse aviation systems procedures into organizations that have previously been focused ground operations. We find a willingness within the different industries, but not the expertise to easily meld the two together. What sort of expectation should the industry as a whole have around safety? Should the onus be on the FAA to create rules that people can adhere to, or should we focus more on getting individuals and organizations to realize that the safe operation of a UAV will ultimately always be on them?
The UAS industry must respect the safety culture that has been established in manned aviation and time-tested over the last one hundred years. Individuals and organizations need to understand that an equal level of safety must exist for UAS to be introduced into the National Airspace System (NAS). Innovation in this industry, such as miniaturized ADS-B components or even low-altitude tracking devices are creating new pathways to facilitate the safe integration of UAS into the NAS.
The FAA, while slow to catch-up, is working to develop regulations that support the integration of UAS, but not at the expense of introducing greater risk into the NAS. Of course, operators will always need to understand that the responsibility and ownership for this incredible technology rests with them, just like the operator of a motor vehicle accepts responsibility for their actions while driving. Rules that respect the technology and innovation growth curve, while protecting our airspace and minimizing undue risk, is essential to the success of our industry. At the same time, ensuring that operators are compliant and safe is vital to the growth of our industry and to preventing incidents or accidents that could have terrible consequences. What does the future of this technology look like?
The future for UAS technology is intensely bright. It seems like every day there are new applications being devised or coming to the surface.
In numbers alone, there are almost 500,000 UAS that have been registered with the FAA for recreational purposes. At the same time, we have witnessed a massive surge in the number of registered operators who are approved by most commonly the “Section 333” exemption, to conduct commercial operations; that number is currently above 5,000 exemptions and is expected to reach 10,000 before the Small UAS rule is finalized. As more and more UAS take to the sky and regulations take shape, new aircraft designs and mission applications will continue to surface.
At some point in the relatively near future, we will witness a “critical inflection point” once Beyond Visual Range (BVR) operations are authorized in the United States. This will create fascinating new use cases and the possibilities are incredible for what we will be able to achieve once Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BLOS) operations are approved and there is the regional, national, and global infrastructure in place to support safe operations.