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The Coming Public Safety Drone Pilot Danger of Wilting on the Vine

The Coming Public Safety Drone Pilot Danger of Wilting on the Vine

It’s one thing to want to get into flying UAS or drones for public safety missions. Getting the proper training, passing the right tests, and doing a bit of flying is the easy part.

What is going to become more of an issue are people of fire departments and police departments who have passed a test and flown a bit but who do not utilize those skills on a regular basis.

The moment of an urgent incident is the least effective time to hone your skills but what about the UAS public safety pilot who is only called on every three to six months? What kind of skills are they going to have when needed most?

So much of being a good UAS pilot is about muscle memory and not having to worry about your flying skills at a time of an emergency so you can instead focus on the mission at hand.

Would you want your MedEvac pilot to be flying his first mission in six months the night you need them to save your life?

And let’s not just focus on pilot atrophy but also on equipment concerns. If not called upon for a period of time, batteries will discharge, software will not be updated, and equipment surprises can create an unnecessary hurdle.

On top of those hurdles, there will come a time in the near future where we will find more UAS and drone aircraft in the air over incidents. These might be from different departments responding to the same incident or it may be interloper gawkers or news crews in our airspace.

When you combine the rusty pilot with unexercised equipment and add additional traffic and stressful demands – it’s a recipe for disaster and this reality is coming.

As an aircraft pilot I can assure you the skills you need for the most demanding type of instrument flying are not all automatic. The worst time to remember how to shoot a low visibility instrument approach is in low visibility. The worst time for a UAS pilot to sharpen their drone skills is on an infrequent urgent call.

Should We Have Professional Public Safety UAS Pilots?

I wonder if there is even a need for professional and skilled UAS pilots. The limited number of missions that may be flown seems like a shared resource between regional departments makes the most sense for the primary UAS missions of search and rescue, wildland fires, and large structure fires.

Wouldn’t it be better to have area pilots called on to fly more missions and exercise their skills than just the person who took a drone class six months ago? Damn right it would be.

I will confess there is no right answer to these questions but if the goal of a UAS flight is to maximize the pilot and aircraft capabilities to best achieve the goal at hand, well, then the answer is pretty obvious.

But Let’s Be Honest

The majority of critical UAS public safety flying is not your average type of drone flying. It’s not flying across a football field on a beautiful day while maintaining constant contact with the aircraft. No, the typical requirement is usually challenging and takes place under difficult conditions. It might require the pilot to operate beyond their capabilities under exigent circumstances. I’ve been faced with those situations as a pilot.

Should we demand higher qualified and trained regional UAS pilots to be on call when a child is missing at night or is good enough, good enough?

As fast as the UAS technology is changing and evolving an aircraft that sits in a truck, aging, is only an expensive piece of outdated technology that is underutilized and inefficient. And a UAS pilot who is not training and flying real missions is just going to wilt on the vine.

What do you think? Send me an email below.

About Steve Rhode

Steve is an experienced and certificated UAS pilot and aircraft instrument rated pilot. He is also the Chief Pilot with the Wake Forest Fire Department and North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy.
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