Joshua Olds, Unmanned Safety Institute

Nov. 24, 2020

Safety promotion is the fourth pillar of a safety management system (SMS) and of key importance to UAS operations due to the varying degrees of pilot backgrounds and operating cultures presented by the nascent industry. Safety promotion at its core establishes a systematic process for ensuring open lines of communication, distribution of safety related information, and shared mental models relative to a culture of safety. Uniquely, leadership within the commercial unmanned community consists of previous hobbyists/recreationalists, Department of Defense aviators/contractors, commercial aviators and technologists. These varied backgrounds bring different perspectives and backgrounds to organizations, merging the worlds of aviation, radio control/modeling, process/procedure and technology together.

Safety promotion creates a pathway to bring all of these backgrounds together with a shared mental model resulting in:

  • Continuous, on-going safety education and training
  • Open lines of communication to encourage hazard identification and procedure updates
  • A positive safety culture

Pillars of an SMS

Education and Training – “Compliance is not Safety”

A topic discussed often in aviation is compliance versus safety. An exploration of compliance and safety will show that the two are very different. In UAS operations, compliance with government regulations will likely not be enough to meet the needs of the safety education required for your organization. Your safety education and training program should be commensurate to both the size and complexity of your aircraft and operations.

In other words, it should correspond to the risk profile presented by the technology used. Depending upon the size of your organization, it may be prudent to have external evaluation by a third-party to provide an impartial opinion.

Management Involvement

Management is key to driving safety education and training initiatives. Without leadership buy-in, the appropriate resources and attitudes will not be available. Management inclusion will also create a sense of importance and buy-in by all stakeholders in the organization. This includes all business units and personnel (pilots, technicians, visual observers, ground crew, external vendors, etc.). With UAS operations, it can be difficult to build a sense of safety “necessity” for smaller aircraft due to their cross-use as recreational platforms. Management can support the vision for the program and recognize hazards that exist and evolve as the organization grows. The goal is a shared mental model and shared information that leads to a collaborative effort for safety and hazard mitigation.

Safety Promotion Through Education and Training

Education and training should incorporate your safety policy, safety risk management and safety assurance processes, so that all personnel are competent and aware of organizational safety requirements. Key aspects of training and education include the following:

  • Checklists
    Training around checklists aligns personnel to policies and procedures created internal to the organization. UAS have varying degrees of user interfaces, safety systems, documentation and pre-sets requiring a high level of dependence on checklists.
  • Hazard Reporting and Analysis
    Training involves hazard analysis, reporting/evaluating operational and ground-based hazards, and processes for ensuring protections for individuals reporting.
  • Documentation Reviews and Revisions
    Training around documentation updates, evaluation of updates and implementation of related improvements should be an organizational norm. UAS operations evolve as technology evolves, necessitating a culture of review and updating. This training should educate employees on a recommendation process, revision control process and software used for documentation management.
  • Safety Action Group (SAG) Practice
    Training through mock accident/mishap scenarios for the SAG to work through, creates an environment of continuous improvement and proactive analysis, rather than an environment that is simpy reactive to an accident/incident.

Safety Communication

UAS operations present unique safety issues that are still being addressed across the industry related to the ecosystem for UAS technology: organization, technology and human factors. Safety communication in UAS operations is key to reducing accident/mishap rates, improving personnel crew coordination and gaining operational efficiency. Safety communication is defined as the manner by which safety related information is organized, disseminated and analyzed throughout the organization. Of critical importance is the bidirectional flow of information from management to personnel and vice versa. The processes and procedures related to this free flow of safety information should be documented in a SMS and implemented across the organization.

Methods for Meaningful Dialog

To create an environment of meaningful conversation between personnel and management, there are several tools available to an organization. The level of complexity and depth of these tools will vary depending on the level of complexity and size of the organization’s operations and aircraft.

  • Scheduled Safety Briefings
    These briefings present opportunities to discuss timely safety topics relating to the ecosystem of UAS technology. This environment is the heart of SMS, since this is frequently when safety concerns are highlighted for all of the personnel involved.
  • Safety Bulletins and Newsletters
    In the UAS community, there are several, free sources of monthly safety briefings including Unmanned Safety Institute’s Safety Brief, FAA Safety Briefing and NTSB’s accident data, all of which could be used for review and analysis exercises.
  • Websites and Email Communications
    A direct form of communication on safety can originate through an organizational website or email related to safety hazards, incidents or reviews of policy procedure. Websites present a great method of collective data for tracking and analysis by existing and new employees.
  • Safety Priorities
    Identifying organizational priorities for increased safety and mitigating hazards is a great way of driving both a positive safety culture and expected behaviors.
  • Change Management Briefings
    UAS operations, processes and procedures can change often, which can impact safety management manuals, emergency response plans, operational checklists and field manuals. Change management briefings update personnel and management on the impact of the change (low, medium, high) and align the organizational mental model related to how the documentation is implemented.

Safety Culture

All of the practices mentioned to this point contribute to what is called a safety culture. A positive safety culture represents the behavior, attitudes and beliefs shared across an organization, which drive decision-making, proactive analysis and careful reaction to safety concerns within the organization. UAS operations should carefully consider the following items in the formation of a safety culture within an organization.

  • Non-punitive process for safety hazard identification and reporting
  • Shared mental model in relation to defined goals and objectives of the organization
  • Formal and informal analysis of safety issues across the organization
  • Shared responsibility of weight of employee-contributed safety data
  • Buy-in at both the employee and contractor level
  • Proper balance of reward versus performance related to safety reporting and performance
  • Process and initiative to learn from and react to mishaps, incidents, accidents and errors
  • Processes and procedures that can endure employee turnover, evolving technology and new use cases for UAS

When defining, evaluating or establishing the methods of creating a culture of safety for an UAS operation, it is helpful to look at an organization’s vision for future operations in the process. A common trap specific to UAS operation is to look at the safety climate as a snapshot in time, rather than the organization’s safety culture. The two are vastly different and are often confused when conducting an internal evaluation. Focusing on the future growth and complexity of operations encourages a safety culture to be developed naturally through complex operational, organizational and technology planning.

Information shared in this analysis of safety promotion was derived from Unmanned Safety Institute’s textbook Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Safety (ISBN: 978-0-9987295-1-0).