You would not believe the questions I get regularly. Many of them wind up being innocent-looking rabbit holes that lead to an underground maze of tunnels.
Take, for example, the question, “How long should my preflight take?”
I Guarantee Nobody is Going to Like the Preflight Answer
According to FAA Advisory Circular 107-2A there is a long list of preflight checks that the FAA “suggests” should or “must” be made.
Some of these items seem entirely problematic and counterintuitive. For example, “31. At a controlled low altitude, fly within range of any interference and recheck all controls and stability.”
I understand the concept, but why would I intentionally fly towards a known interference point to risk an uncommanded or uncontrolled flyaway? And if it did fly away and strike someone or damage property, how would the pilot not be found liable for careless and reckless actions?
Remember, all uncommanded or uncontrolled incidents require an NTSB mandatory report.
Other items seem entirely impossible if your UAS is no longer under development or support by the manufacturer.
The FAA Checklist
FAA Compliance Education Takes Hours of Deep Reading
A casual look at the checklist found in Appendix E of AC 107-2A could leave the pilot with the misperception that the items on the checklist can be modified to remove anything that is not possible to check casually. The information at the start of the checklist appendix says, “Remote pilots may choose to use this checklist or develop their own for the operation of their specific small UAS.”
But that’s not the whole story as some claim.
The complete AC 107-2A appears to guide pilots towards what the FAA considers a thorough preflight examination and does not leave the preflight checklist entirely up to the individual pilot.
Let’s Look at More Information in AC 107-2A for Guidance
Section 5.11 provides some initial guidance for what is expected.
5.11 Preflight Familiarization, Inspection, and Actions for Aircraft Operation. The remote PIC must complete a preflight familiarization, inspection, and other actions, such as crewmember briefings, prior to beginning flight operations (§ 107.49). The FAA has produced many publications providing in-depth information on topics such as aviation weather, aircraft loading and performance, emergency procedures, risk mitigation, ADM, and airspace, which should all be considered prior to operations (see Appendix E, Sample Preflight Assessment and Inspection Checklist). Additionally, all remote pilots are encouraged to review FAA publications (see paragraph 2.3).
Section 5.11.1 provides information on items in the checklist that MUST be performed
“Conduct an assessment of the operating environment. The assessment must include at least the following:
- Local weather conditions;
- Local airspace and any flight restrictions;
- The location of persons and moving vehicles not directly participating in the operation, and property on the surface;
- If conducting operations over people or moving vehicles, ensure their small unmanned aircraft is eligible for the category or categories of operations (see Chapter 8);
- Consider the potential for persons and moving vehicles not directly participating in operations entering the operational area for the duration of the operation;
- Consider whether the operation will be conducted over an open-air assembly of persons; and
- Other ground hazards.”
The Ensure Items
The FAA preflight information says the pilot must ensure the following items, which sure sounds like a MUST to me. How can I ensure this was done if I didn’t do it?
AC 107-2A says, “Ensure all persons directly participating in the small UAS operation are informed about the following:
- Operating conditions;
- Emergency procedures;
- Contingency procedures, including those for persons or moving vehicles not directly participating in the operation that enter the operational area;
- Roles and responsibilities of each person participating in the operation; and
- Potential hazards.
Ensure all control links between the CS and the small unmanned aircraft are working properly. Before each flight, the remote PIC must determine the small unmanned aircraft flight control surfaces necessary for the safety of flight are moving correctly through the manipulation of the small unmanned aircraft CS. If the remote PIC observes that one or more of the control surfaces are not responding correctly to CS inputs, then the remote PIC may not conduct flight operations until correct movement of all flight control surface(s) is established.
Ensure sufficient power exists to continue controlled flight operations to a normal landing. This can be accomplished by following the small UAS manufacturer’s operating manual power consumption tables. Another method would be to include a system on the small UAS that detects power levels and alerts the remote pilot when remaining aircraft power is diminishing to a level that is inadequate for continued flight operation. [Reminds me of this accident.]
Ensure the small unmanned aircraft anti-collision light(s) function(s) properly prior to any flight that will occur during civil twilight or at night. [Checklist guidance says they must be checked; they are visible at 3 SM.] The remote PIC must also consider, during his or her preflight check, whether the anti-collision light(s) could reduce the amount of power available to the small unmanned aircraft. The remote PIC may need to reduce the planned duration of the small unmanned aircraft operation to ensure sufficient power exists to maintain the illuminated anti-collision light(s) and to ensure sufficient power exists for the small unmanned aircraft to proceed to a normal landing.
Ensure any object attached or carried by the small unmanned aircraft is secure and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft.
Ensure all necessary documentation is available for inspection, including the remote PIC’s Remote Pilot Certificate, identification, aircraft registration, and CoW, if applicable (§ 107.7).”
You would be a fool to think the FAA guidance on “encouraged” items makes them avoidable or unnecessary. If they are encouraged, they are expected to be completed under good airmanship. Seriously, what is your defense going to be when the FAA asks you why you did not complete a safety risk assessment?
“Safety Risk Assessment. These preflight familiarizations, inspections, and actions can be accomplished as part of an overall safety risk assessment. The FAA encourages the remote PIC to conduct the overall safety risk assessment as a method of compliance with the restriction on operating over any person who is not directly involved in the operation, unless the small unmanned aircraft is eligible for an operation over people in accordance with part 107 subpart D. The safety risk assessment also assists with ensuring the small unmanned aircraft will remain clear of other aircraft. Appendix A provides additional guidance on how to conduct an overall safety risk assessment.”
Appendix A is nine pages long.
The last statement made on the ninth page should give guidance on if Appendix A can be avoided because you don’t want to add it to the checklist. “A.4.11 Starting the Operation. Once a remote PIC develops and implements appropriate risk controls, the operation can begin.”
Herin Lies a Major Issue
The FAA is focused on good Aeronautical Decision Making and Risk Management. But here is where I get stuck. If I am flying a drone that is no longer in development or support from the drone manufacturer and the manufacturer is no longer processing safety issue data and passing it on to the public or pilot, then doesn’t that logically create an unacceptable level of risk?
The FAA says, “Hazard Identification. Hazards related to the small unmanned aircraft and its operating environment must be identified and controlled. The analysis process used to define hazards needs to consider all components of the system, based on the equipment being used and the environment in which it is operated. The key question to ask during analysis of the small unmanned aircraft and its operation is, “what if?” Small unmanned aircraft remote PICs are expected to exercise due diligence in identifying significant and reasonably foreseeable hazards related to their operations.”
Answer this question. Suppose you know in advance that the manufacturer will not tell you about any identified problems or solutions to deal with them. Doesn’t that unacceptably increase your operational risk? Before takeoff, you already know that you can’t know.
Without any input from the manufacturer regarding the likelihood of an incident occurring, are software failures, motor failures, or communication failures likely or unlikely? How do you know?
Third-Part Support Not Wise
Some have claimed their drone company can provide third-party support to certify the safety of the UAS for the pilot to fly.
But those assumptions avoid two major issues.
- Since the manufacturer is not providing information to the public or third-party service entities, how would they know about increasing failures on the drone?
- Since the drone is primarily operated using software and onboard components, then how can a third-party provider verify those items are in working order if the manufacturer has not provided any testing software or continued support?
Plus, it just seems not wise for any third party to certify the safety of a drone since they are now assuming the performance liability for continued operation.
Chapter 7. Small UAS Maintenance and Inspection
So let’s stick with the drones that the manufacturer is no longer supporting or providing information on known defects or time-limited parts.
Chapter 7 of AC 107-2A advises the pilot “7.2.1 Scheduled Maintenance. The small UAS manufacturer may provide documentation for scheduled maintenance of the entire small unmanned aircraft and associated system equipment. The manufacturer may identify components of the small UAS that should undergo scheduled periodic maintenance or replacement based on time-in-service limits (such as flight hours, cycles, and/or the calendar-days). Operators should adhere to the manufacturer’s recommended schedule for such maintenance, in the interest of achieving the longest and safest service life of the small UAS.
220.127.116.11 If the small UAS manufacturer or component manufacturer does not provide scheduled maintenance instructions, the operator should establish a scheduled maintenance protocol. Such protocol could entail documenting any repair, modification, overhaul, or replacement of a system component resulting from normal flight operations, and recording the time-in-service for that component at the time of the maintenance procedure. Over time, the operator should then be able to establish a reliable maintenance schedule for the small UAS and its components.”
The recordkeeping requirements are enormous and something I’m not going to get into here.
And Here is Where the FAA Appears to Say Don’t Fly the Out of Support Drone
“If the operator or other maintenance personnel are unable to repair, modify, or overhaul a small UAS or component back to its safe operational specification, the operator should replace the small UAS or component with one that is in a condition for safe operation. All required maintenance should be completed before each flight, and preferably in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions or, in lieu of that, within known industry best practices.”
Suppose you have a weird software issue or a possible motor degradation, and the manufacturer is not selling replacement parts or updating the software. How can you bring the drone back to safe operational specifications?
FAA Expects Documentation of Each Preflight
The FAA expects that in the event of a UAS accident or incident, you will produce documentation on each preflight and the amount of time the preflight took.
This reminds me of the DOT requirement for commercial truck drivers to conduct a pre-trip inspection. The expectation is that inspection should take about 30 to 50 minutes.
Swap truck with a drone as you read this information from attorney Steven Gursten.
“How truck accident lawyers can determine whether a proper DOT pre-trip inspection was done?
When a truck accident attorney sees a driver’s ELD [electronic logging device] reflecting almost no time spent on a DOT pre-trip inspection, alarm bells should instantly go off. A skilled truck accident lawyer should make short work of any truck driver whose ELDs reflect this.
But this is not an opportunity to attack the credibility of the truck driver. Most truck drivers want to do the right thing, and what this really reflects is that the trucking company does not have the systems in place to monitor and supervise safety, as it is required by law to do.
In deposition, you should focus on the following questions:
- Was a DOT pre-trip inspection actually done?
- What did you inspect as part of your inspection?
- In what manner did you inspect the various parts and accessories?
- How long did that take you?
- Was this inspection recorded on FMCSA compliant paperwork?
- How often do you perform this inspection?
- Have you ever found faulty parts or accessories during this inspection?
- When was the last time you reported a vehicle as out of service and brought it in for repairs?
- Is 15 minutes enough to thoroughly inspect these parts and accessories?
- Who within the organization trained you on proper inspection procedures?
- Does he/she believe that 15 minutes is sufficient?
From this, one of two things will happen:
- You will either expose the trucker for submitting false information by only reporting a few minutes for a pre-trip safety inspection.
- Or you will expose the trucker driver – and the trucking company – for skipping over a proper DOT pre-trip inspection, as they are both required to do under the FMCSRs.
When you as a lawyer see a truck driver’s ELDs showing almost no time spent on a pre-trip safety inspection time in the course of litigating a serious truck accident, do not let the truck driver – or more importantly, the trucking company – off the hook.
Scrutinize these inspections. This will expose bad truck drivers and the trucking companies pressuring them to break the laws, and ultimately help you make the best possible recovery for your clients.
So What About That FAA Preflight Recomendation Now?
The same AC 107-2A FAA documentation also talks about “Careless or Reckless Operation. As with manned aircraft, remote PICs are prohibited from engaging in a careless or reckless operation (§ 107.23). Because small UAS have additional operating considerations that are not present in manned aircraft operations, additional activity may amount to careless or reckless operation if conducted using a small UAS. For example, careless or reckless operation may consist of failure to consider weather conditions near structures, trees, or rolling terrain when operating in a densely populated area.”
That sure does not sound like cutting the preflight requirements short because you don’t want to do them will be considered sound practice, does it?
How Long Should an FAA Preflight Take for a Part 107 or COA Pilot?
I asked Robert Zarracina, an experienced airplane and drone pilot to ask around and talk to other Part 107 only pilot friends about how long it would take to meet the “recommendations” put forth in the preflight checklist.
Here is what he estimated the time to achieve each item would take.
Problem Areas and Opportunities for You to Discuss With Your Department
Zarracina rightly identified the problem in item 4, if the drone manufacturer no longer supports the drone or passes on known defect information. However, a notation of “indeterminable” does not mean it does not require time; it means it is close to impossible.
So here we are, full circle; if the UAS is out of development and support by the manufacturer or they are not passing known defects onto you, how can you verify all the manufacturer-required components that make up the small UAS are present and operating as designed? And if you can’t, how will you defend your decision when considering the FAA emphasis on Aeronautical Decision Making and Risk Analysis?
If you and your department do not have a logging process for all preflight inspections, you should consider implementing it now.
Some time can be saved by making up a paper or electronic version of the preflight you can use. However, some sections will require your department attorney or risk manager to develop a process to meet other items.
It might be that the department’s decision is that some of these items can be completed at the start of the shift or before the first flight of the day. For example, in the fire department, a start of shift “preflight” on a fire engine takes about 45 minutes.
Even with a tailored form to use and start of shift assessments, it would appear that total UAS preflight processing, including briefings that take less than 30 minutes, would be unsatisfactory.
Remember, as the RPIC, the weight of bad actions, fines, penalties, and consequences rests on your shoulders alone.