Drone flight safety management is a concept that means different things to different people across a wide variety of organizations. A lot has been written about safety in the world of aviation where, in fact, the culture and standards have matured probably more than in any other industry. These solid foundations have matured over decades and have adapted to ever-increasing technologies and use-cases. Most recently, the advent of unmanned aviation has challenged those in the safety business with a host of brand new concepts and problems; but for those of us managing safety at an FAA-Designated UAS Test Site, these challenges become particularly unique.
Anyone familiar with industry standards knows that they vary quite a bit. Standards bodies such as ASTM, ISO and others (including the FAA) often overlap with policies and level of effort. Safety standards are no different, and often suffer from this effect as well. Here at Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research (NUAIR), we have adopted some key industry standards as our bedrock. We have a well-documented drone flight safety program in our general operating procedures manual that is reviewed and updated annually. Within this program we have established policies that define our Safety Management System (SMS) from end to end.
“We believe that safety is a core value along with a competitive advantage.”
The SMS is integrated into every operational event, beginning with the planning stages, and continuing through deployment, ground operations, flight operations, post-flight analysis and maintenance, and ending with a thorough debrief among the relevant team members. That level of risk control is truly the heart of any good SMS. As Chief of Safety, I report directly to the Chief Executive Officer, bypassing any bureaucracy or communication barrier, which has proved very successful in ensuring that our SMS remains relevant, adaptive, and effective in controlling risk.
Risk Management (RM) is fundamental, but the methods of RM are wide and varied throughout the industry as well. At NUAIR, we begin the RM process by first meeting with potential clients, having them provide us with their concepts and as much detail as possible about their equipment. This can be a challenge at a test site where clients range from industry giants like NASA or Boeing all the way down to the three-person startup company with an aircraft that is 100% proprietary.
The documentation received from these companies range from published Technical Orders which are highly detailed and hundreds of pages long, to self-prepared Microsoft Word documents that may only be paragraphs long. We expect every client to have a complete pilot’s operating manual and maintenance manual and expect their maintenance practices to be able to track all modifications (hardware and software) effectively. This may appear fundamentally obvious, but the levels of detail that we see are often quite diverse.
Documentation covers equipment primarily, but we then need to fully understand the proposed test flights themselves. Again, this varies widely across our domain of clients. A concept of operations (CONOPS) is key and needs to ensure we fully understand the objectives and parameters. Flight paths in four dimensions are generally depicted pictorially to allow simple visualizations. That is critical for the safety team to begin to identify the hazards we will address during the review process as we assess risks. The industry leaders who are familiar with flight test management will often then produce highly detailed test cards, with all test points and parameters clearly defined and organized for a pilot to execute in real-time. The less-experienced may simply trace the ground-track on top of a google-earth image for us.
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