Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as “drones,” have becomeincreasingly popular in recent years among hobbyists and the business community alike. From aerial photography to package delivery to disaster relief to weather tracking and beyond, individuals and organizations have found a wide variety of uses for this technology. Even OSHA has joined in and developed its own procedures for the use of drones during compliance inspections. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that 3.55 million consumer drones and 442,000 commercial drones will be in operation by 2021.
Two industries in particular can benefit from using drones to improve workplace safety: utilities and construction. A drone’s ability to capture aerial video of a utility installation or construction site keeps workers on the ground, eliminating the risks associated with working at height to conduct inspections. Furthermore, for utilities or sites located on rough terrain that is hazardous to traverse, drones eliminate the need to have workers conduct walking inspections altogether.
When deploying drone technology, you need to keep several factors in mind to ensure that your workers, technology, information and work site are protected during and after a drone flight. If not operated properly, a drone can cause damage to your utilities or work site and endanger workers and others who may be in its flight path. Here are three steps to keep in mind for a safe and efficient drone surveillance program.
1. Establish Standards, Practices and Procedures
Most organizations have established practices for how work is conducted and who is responsible for that work. A drone program should be no different. If you want workers to operate drone technology safely, you must first establish how you will keep workers, job sites and the general public safe during a drone flight.
“There are the obvious ways that drones help keep your workers safe, but you need to think about how you are protecting your workers and utilities through your policies and keeping safety in mind when you’re thinking about drone program requirements,” says Jill Brown, senior technical manager, Honeywell Aerospace Commercial UAV Services.
Those developing regulations for their commercial drone program should consult FAA requirements for small unmanned aircraft (Part 107), which establishes rules and regulations for operating requirements, registration, pilot certification, UAS certification and waivers, and airspace authorizations.
“You have to think about how you’re going to write and document your program standards, and more importantly how you’re going to going to handle document control and acknowledgment of all procedures,” Brown continues.
Working from the foundation set by FAA and other regulators, utility companies, contractors and others should consider other factors that apply specifically to their programs.
As you craft and develop your standards and policies, ask yourself:
- How do we want to use drone technology?
- Under what circumstances will its use be permitted?
- What's the maximum amount of wind allowable for flight?
- Who will be authorized to operate the technology?
- How will they be trained and assessed?
- What policies do we need to put in place to protect workers, the job site, our information and the general public?
Answering these questions will help ensure that all involved understand what is expected of them when operating a drone and that they have the knowledge to conduct safe flights.
2. Conduct Training
While standards lay the groundwork for your program, your staff must then be properly trained to operate the technology safely.
“Whoever is responsible for flying the drones for your organization should know what your policies and standards are,” says Brown. “You should have a documented training program, with both written and flight proficiency training requirements.”
Your training program should consist of both a written portion on policies and procedures, Brown advises, and a flight proficiency portion focusing on safe flight, good decision-making skills and use of checklists.
Furthermore, you should establish clear pass/fail criteria within your program’s standards for both the written and flight proficiency portions of training.
“With many types of training, it is administered through a classroom or on-site type setting and someone is signing off on that training and issuing a certification,” she says. “The same should follow for your drone program.”
Along with training before a pilot’s first flight, it’s important to ensure that a pilot’s knowledge stays current, and that they are performing flights on a regular basis and using established checklists when doing so.
“You want to set and document safe flight currency, for example an acceptable number of flight hours over a certain period of time,” says Brown. “If you have someone who hasn’t flown in some time going out to pilot a drone, you’re increasing the safety risk.”
3. Perform Audits
Once you’ve established policies and trained your staff, auditing helps ensure that those policies are being followed and that your training is effective. Whether you have an internal drone surveillance program or outsource services to an external vendor, Brown stresses the importance of conducting audits and the valuable information they provide.
“A really good audit will help keep your workers and program safe,” she says. “Audits may be intimidating, but the risks associated with not auditing far outweigh the time they take to perform.”
Brown advises organizations to conduct audits on at least an annual basis to examine documentation, job sites, log books, training and exams to verify that these program elements are aligned with current best practices and to confirm that their overall program is operating at optimal safety and efficiency. She also encourages organizations to use qualified auditors from outside the drone program or outside the organization to perform the audit.
Brown also says job-site visits are one of the most valuable audit techniques. During these visits, the auditor can assess the performance of drone pilots, ensure that they are following checklists, are wearing the proper PPE and have the necessary equipment to conduct the flight safely.
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