5 Areas to Consider When Integrating Drone Operations into a Large Company
This article is written based on my experience interacting with small to multiple billion dollar companies. This article is designed to ask questions which will be the starting point for discussions which need to happen internally in a company. If you are a company wanting to continue the discussion further, contact me.
1. Operations – (Internal, External, & Flight Operations Procedures Manual)
A. Internal Operations Within the Company Between the Different Departments
How does the drone department fit into the immediate company? How will it interact with the other departments? For example, is the drone department also going to be doing the R & D for business cases using drones, or will the R & D department do the business cases for drones? Are there are other departments which might want to use the drone technology such as the marketing department for obtaining photos or videos?
How is the legal department going to exercise oversight? It might not be the wisest use of company resources to have an attorney in legal do the aviation law compliance work but instead work with experienced outside counsel who focuses on this area. Additionally, many states, counties, cities, and towns are all trying to create drone laws. Who is going to manage that? The legal department or more outside attorneys?
Is the drone flight department going to be its own department completely separate from the corporate flight department with the jets or will the drone department be located in the corporate flight department?
In addition to WHERE will the department go, WHO will be the one in charge of it. (We all know everyone wants to be in charge of it.) This will cause some interesting dynamics between different departments. Will the drone department be on its own or be under supervision from the flight department?
B. External Operations Outside the Company?
Where is the drone flight department(s) going? For smaller and mid-sized companies, this might not be a problem, but for large companies which have multiple subsidiaries, it can be an issue. For example, a parent company might want to create a completely new service company by which to service their other companies or they might want to create a drone flight department in each of their subsidiaries.
In Scenario 1, if each company is to have its own drone department, who is actually responsible for updating manuals and distributing them to the other departments You don’t want to be paying for duplicate work. Who is responsible for recurrent training?
What are the long term goals of the company? Scenario 2 with a completely separate drone department is already set up (D) for doing business with other companies who might want to supplement their drone operations (X & Y) or hire out for certain regions because it is more cost effective. Company D could service other companies (potentially even competitors) in the same industries as A, B, and C who haven’t established drone inspection departments. D could be a revenue generator.
Why would a company hire their competitor for drone service? Trying to find a legitimate drone service provider is the equivalent of trying to find a legit pair of sunglasses at the flea market. I would trust my competitor’s drone inspection department more than an independent drone service provider’s.
C. Flight Operations Procedures Manual Outlining Step-by-Step Procedures for Internal & External Interactions
How many different operations are needed? (Day, night, beyond visual line of sight, moving vehicle, operating near an airport in controlled airspace, etc.) Each operation might need its own operations manual. Why? Each type of operation has its own unique set of hazards which need to be mitigated. Those mitigations are built into the manual and checklists.
There are hazards everywhere. Some we know about and some we don’t know about. As operations go on, new hazards will be identified and will need to be reported back to the flight department. For example, let’s say a Phantom 5 comes out and certain drone operators are starting to experience flight controller problems. Who is to receive this information and who will track it?
Another thing to consider is the procedures and quality controls on delivering the data to the appropriate people without it falling through the cracks. For example, if a utility sub-station is being inspected and an element is found to be overheating, who is to receive this knowledge? How is it to be documented? If during a line inspection, vegetation is found starting to get very close to the powerlines, who is supposed to be get notified? Should the drone operator in the field make the direct calls to the appropriate department? Should the drone operator just report back to a dedicated individual in the drone flight department who will make sure the situation is resolved? Maybe both?
What type of data and how much is to be collected? Should the drone operator quickly take some pictures and send those to the appropriate department so they can prioritize the response in their schedule? Is video needed? Where is that data to be stored and what happens if there is a lawsuit with a clever attorney requesting all the data? The legal department knows where to find that data right?
2. Aircraft – (Mission Type, Maintenance, Aircraft Manuals, & Batteries)
A. What Types of Missions Will the Aircraft Perform?
Going back to the two scenarios above, drone departments in Scenario 1 might want mission specific aircraft while Scenario 2 might want a platform that will be adequate for all missions across the multiple companies.
There are a few popular aerial platforms out there that are not that expensive, but certain missions might require aircraft specifically built for that operation which means they will be more expensive.
B. Will the Aircraft Have a Maintenance Program? (Preventive & Corrective Maintenance).
How robust will the maintenance program be? Will it cover all types of repairs? As the repairs needed are more sophisticated, there will be a bigger need for a specialist to conduct those repairs. Will you send it to the manufacturer or will you hire a specialist in-house. Many logistical issues arise; for example, where do you base an in-house specialist if you have offices across the country?
Since unmanned aircraft are getting cheaper and cheaper, you could go to a completely disposable set up. Think of laptops and cellphones as opposed to airplanes. The question is what damage will be considered minor and what or how much damage will cause you to just scrap the drone. You could always sell off the scrap to an aftermarket repair company.
Regarding either scenario, you’ll need to still set up periodic inspection schedules on the aircraft. How are you going to arrange that? Are you checking everything or certain things? What about updates for the drone and the ground station? What about any peripheral equipment like iPads?
C. Aircraft Flight Manuals
Many of the manuals that come with these drones are a joke. You might want to develop your own standardized aircraft flight manuals that are standardized for all platforms. For example, Chapter 1 is Definitions, Chapter 2 Quick Specifications, etc.
How many batteries will you need per drone operator to have in the field?
Batteries are hazardous. If you accidentally drop one just right, you can start a fire.
If you drop something on one, you can start a fire.
If you look at it funny, you can start a fire. Starting to get the picture?
Watch this video of what happened to a LiPo battery in a car:
Here is another story where a guy was charging some batteries and a fire erupted which damaged his home:
Where are they going to be charged? In the car while in the field or back at the office?
If you are going to charge these at the office, how do you prevent them from being a big fire hazard like what happened to the guy in the 2nd video where he had multiple batteries next to each other?
Are there requirements for your operators on the storage of the batteries in the cars when driving out to job sites? It would be a big problem if a vehicle was rear-ended and caught on fire. Will they carry a fire extinguisher? Are the extinguishers appropriately rated for a chemical fire?
E. The Aircraft Manufacturer
From Gus Calderon:
“Selecting the appropriate drones for your intended operation type is a critically important decision. Too often, companies are influenced by drone salesmen boasting features such as a fully autonomous operation. There will always be a need for a skilled and experienced pilot so don’t be fooled by this common sales pitch. You should be most concerned about reliability and safety. When considering safety, keep in mind that the more a drone weighs, the more damage it could cause if it has an “unscheduled landing.”
Another consideration is how long the manufacturer has been in business? What is their product support like? What is the availability of replacement parts and consumables for the drones you select? Also, are training courses available for the drones you are considering?”
3. Drone Pilots – (Pilot Standards, Quality Control, & 107 Waivers and Training.)
A. What Are the Standards for Selecting Pilots?
You are going to have to figure this out if you hire with in-house or outside help. What will be the objective grading criteria you will use for selecting pilots? Will it be based upon test proving just skills? What about experience? Do you use hours or cycles? Do you give more weight to time in certain environments as opposed to others?
B. What Are the Quality Controls?
If you are planning on hiring purely outside help or maybe a hybrid with in-house, how are you going to audit them? I was talking with another drone attorney and this one drone service provider company name came up. We shared the same story of this company that was basically being shady to their clients and not admitting they were NOT approved to fly at the location. That company was trying to get the work done and hoped the clients didn’t ask any questions. Drone service providers like dumb clients. You should seriously consider getting either an aviation attorney or someone in the flight department to do vetting on the front end and some random audits on whoever you hire outside.
C. What Type of Training Will You Provide the Pilots so They Can Fly Under a 107 Waiver?
Certain waivers, like night waivers, require training that is required to be documented and available for inspection if the FAA were to ask for it. How are you going to set up that training? Who is going to deliver it and what are the standards for determining the qualifications of that pilot? If you hire someone outside of the company to train the pilots, how do you vet them and make sure they have instructing insurance?
4. Legal – (107 Waivers or Section 333 Exemptions, External or In-House Counsel, & Crash/Accident Response).
A. Will Your Operations Need a 107 Waiver or Section 333 Exemption or Maybe Both?
This will be important to figure out for purposes of determining costs, operations, and training. Some jobs cannot be done under 107 or 107 waivers (like 55 pound and heavier operations) so you’ll need to go the 333 exemption route. It would be wise to involve a competent aviation attorney at this point to help you determine if you can do all of your operations under just Part 107.
B. Will Legal Be Performed by In-House or with Outside Counsel?
I think the most effective use of company resources will be hiring outside counsel for dealing with the FAA. Most companies do not have any aviation attorneys in their company, and the flight departments, while skilled in navigating the FARs, are not licensed to practice law. Most states consider the unlicensed practice of law a crime.
Furthermore, it can get interesting if there is a lawsuit. Why? Attorneys have the attorney-client privilege while there is no such thing as a drone consultant – client privilege or flight-department-guy- client privilege. Just run this little statement by legal and I’m sure they will 100% agree with me that an attorney is the best way to go. Otherwise, your drone-consultant could get served with a subpoena in a lawsuit and then be forced to either (1) commit perjury, (2) testify against you, or (3) be held in contempt of court if they don’t testify.
Moreover, many attorneys carry malpractice insurance while I highly doubt many of the consultants in this area carry some type of insurance to protect their clients. The insurance is there to make whole injured clients. Do the consultants or attorneys you are working with carry insurance?
C. Does the Company Have Attorneys Designated to be Involved in Post-Crash/Accident Investigations and Communications?
Following on what I just said regarding having an attorney involved PRE-ACCIDENT, an attorney should be designated to be involved post-accident. Do you have an emergency response plan (ERP)? Remember that everything your employees say can and will be used against the company in a lawsuit.
There are also reporting requirements that are to be made to the NTSB and the FAA in certain situations. It also might be beneficial to know if a NASA form should be filed or not. See my article What Are You Legally Required to do After a Drone Crash.
Setting liability aside, there is also a public relations issue here. How will your PR department be brought in?
5. Manuals & Checklists (Training, Aircraft, Flight Operations, & Maintenance).
A. Training Manuals Should Be Integrated with Pilot Standards and 107 Waiver Training Requirements.
Echoing what was said before, the training standards need to be to that of what waivers will require. Night waivers will need pilots and visual observers who are trained to recognizing the problems with operating at night.
B. Who Will Maintain the Aircraft Flight Manuals?
As time goes on, the FAA will issue interpretations. Aircraft will have software upgrades and their control stations as well. There will need to be a person who updates the manuals and ensures that the managers are briefed on the new updates and that the information is relayed to the pilots as well.
C. How Will You Ensure the Flight Operations Manuals Are Updated to Mitigate New Hazards?
The remote pilots operating out in the field will notice new hazards that were maybe not identified in the beginning or the pilots discovered that the mitigation to counter the hazard created a whole new hazard that needs to be mitigated. These hazards need to be relayed to a central point who will determine an appropriate mitigation and then update the manuals and disseminate them to the managers to relay to the pilots.
This article is merely the beginning of a discussion on these 5 problematic areas. I would highly suggest you take a good long look at your operations and see how these pieces of the puzzle interact.
I would also highly, highly suggest getting knowledgeable people involved in these discussions quickly. Why? The larger the company, the larger the group or committee working on the project. This creates more indecisiveness. On top of that, these indecisive committees can have 3-10 people on them which creates 3-10 man hours of – wasted time.
How much did it cost the company to have those 3-10 people try and figure out something? Worse yet, how much did it cost the company by not implementing drone operations? Remember, drones don’t make money, but save money. There are operating costs that can be immediately lowered or risks lowered (thus, lower insurance premiums or less chance of an accident).
I would suggest to you that the bigger the company, the overall cost will be lower to immediately get involved competent people to (1) allow the drone group/committee to rapidly make decisions and (2) accelerate the time from discussion to implementation to enable the company the use of drones to save time, money, and lives.
Can you really afford not to start? Contact me and let’s get started.