Business Aviation Insider

UAS with office building in background

July 24, 2017

When it comes to safety, operators should treat UAS like any other new aircraft.

After years of anticipation, numerous industries welcomed the August 2016 issuance of FAR Part 107, which established rules for commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) weighing less than 55 pounds. While the guidelines provided a welcome framework for many sUAS operations, the matter of developing safe UAS operations was left largely to the discretion of operators.

The FAA crafted Part 107 to deliberately restrict larger-scale operations, including UAS flights beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) of the UAS operator. The rule also defines a maximum sUAS operating altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL) in daytime VFR conditions, within sight of the operator or approved observers.

While current regulations are limited to small UAS operations, one drone operator expressed support for the FAA’s cautious methodology.

“As a helicopter operator flying in low-level airspace, we are keenly aware of the measured approach that needs to be taken,” said Brandon Maxwell, corporate communications manager for Era Helicopters, which recently began operating DJI Matrice 600 sUAS for missions such as infrastructure inspection, survey, mapping, construction, engineering and imagery services.

Our flight department has what I consider to be one of the very best safety programs, and our UAS operation is a mirror image of that.

Steve Dunai, UAS Program Manager, American Family Insurance

Maxwell noted that many safety procedures developed through Era’s manned operations – including personnel transport to and from offshore oil and gas production platforms and other installations, emergency air medical transport, VIP transport and utility services – were also found to apply to its emerging UAS department.

“Era’s nearly seven decades of experience with manned operations was extremely valuable in helping to build our UAS program, and – in some ways – serves as a competitive advantage over other UAS operators,” Maxwell added. “We treat our UAS program in much the same way we manage our manned operations. There’s very little difference in our approach to ensuring safe UAS operations, and that high level of focus and attention is what our customers want to see.”

Exceptions Allow More Specialized Operations

In addition to providing general regulatory guidance for commercial sUAS operations, Part 107 also allows some restrictions to be waived at the FAA’s discretion, through certificates of authorization (COA) and exemptions under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. For example, American Family Insurance is permitted under its Section 333 exemption to operate less than five miles from Dane County Regional Airport (MSN) near the company’s Madison, WI, headquarters.

Recognizing the long-term potential for UAS in its industry, American Family formed a dedicated UAS operation last fall inside its existing flight department, and is now testing potential UAS applications with consumer-grade DJI quadcopters.

“Our hope is to provide the best customer service we can, and that includes quick and accurate compilation of data following, for example, a tornado or other catastrophic event,” explained American Family Insurance UAS Program Manager Steve Dunai. “The faster we can be on-scene to assess damages, the faster we can help expedite repairs.”

Like Maxwell, Dunai noted that existing company flight departments hold a distinct advantage over other entities implementing UAS.

“Our flight department has what I consider to be one of the very best safety programs, and our UAS operation is a mirror image of that,” said Dunai. “We have the same safety management system (SMS) in place, the same emergency response plan, and we’re developing training programs that adhere closely to manned aircraft requirements.”

Dunai encourages other companies to follow a similar approach when establishing their own UAS programs. “The best recommendation I can give, is don’t take this lightly,” he emphasized.

“Treat UAS like any aircraft you’re adding to your fleet, and develop similar professional and safe business practices for it. Immediately treat it like any other full-scale aviation platform.

Top-notch flight departments take justifiable pride in operating safely and professionally, but it doesn’t take many incidents of negligence to lose that reputation.”

Dunai noted that American Family Insurance is also looking at larger-scope mission possibilities, over greater distances, and with less human interaction and oversight.

“The equipment required for large-scale operations either isn’t quite there yet, or we run into restrictions like BVLOS,” explained Dunai. “We’ll get there in time, though. This issue has huge touch points across our entire company, from claims assessment to underwriting, and even marketing. There’s a ton of potential there.”

“When our customers see first-hand the benefits a UAS can offer in the field, they often identify new ways to utilize our program to meet their needs; it’s a real partnership approach,” Era’s Maxwell added. “In fact, we are currently developing some new products that are a direct result of customer feedback. There’s little doubt that UAS are going to have a large impact on the future of aviation.”

A Team Approach to UAS Safety

The proliferation of UAS operations across the U.S. has been followed by increasing concerns over potential accidents involving UAS and manned aircraft. NBAA is among the participants in the recently formed Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST), a group of industry volunteers invited by the FAA to help enhance the safety of UAS operations.

The UAST is modeled after the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) and General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC). Like those joint industry/regulatory groups, the UAST utilizes a data-driven, consensus-based approach to analyze safety data within the UAS industry and seeks to develop products and recommendations aimed at mitigating the causes of UAS accidents.

“Our mission is to safely open the airspace to increasingly advanced UAS operations through data-driven safety enhancements identified from all sectors of the unmanned aircraft community,” said Ben Marcus, UAST industry co-chair (along with the FAA’s Earl Lawrence) and CEO of AirMap, an airspace management platform for drones.

With many of the rules governing UAS operations still to be written, Marcus emphasized the importance of developing industry-driven safety enhancements.

We treat our UAS program in much the same way we manage our manned operations. There’s very little difference in our approach to ensuring safe UAS operations.

Brandon Maxwell, Corporate Communications Manager, Era Helicopters

“The first step of this process is to have structured safety data regarding both commercial and private UAS operations, and our emphasis in the UAST is to collect that data,” he explained. “The second step is to support the continued development of a safety culture within the UAS operator community, so that all UAS operators realize the benefits we’ve seen in manned aircraft operations.

“Third, we must demonstrate that the UAS industry is credible and safe,” Marcus continued. “There are many misconceptions about UAS, and we want to share how our industry is progressing in a safe way.”

AirMap’s platform currently offers situational awareness, flight planning and airspace authorization technology for UAS operators, and provides data to drone manufacturers used to automatically restrict UAS from high-risk areas, known as “geo-fencing.”

The company is also working to develop the necessary unmanned traffic management infrastructure to support larger-scale UAS operations and, eventually, autonomous UAS flights.

“Today, drone flights are relatively restricted; but soon, millions of UAS will safely operate billions of flights with very little human interaction,” Marcus predicted. “To get to that level of reliability, efficiency and safety, we’ll need a new type of airspace management infrastructure that doesn’t yet exist.”