Listen to the Pro UAS Pilots at FDNY When it Comes to Drone Safety

The following guest post was written by FDNY Firefighter and Pilot -John Wakie, John is also the co-founder of Aerosponse, a public safety consulting company that I would highly recommend.

You can’t imagine how proud I am to hear him share the foundational lessons all professional UAS pilots need to hear.

Fly Safe – Stay Safe

I know we have all heard the term “Risk Vs. Reward,” but what does it mean? How does Aeronautical Decision Making play a vital role in my everyday operations? Are my sUAS piloting abilities as good as I think they are? When was the last time my equipment(sUAS) was thoroughly checked and maintained?

There are many questions we as sUAS operators face every time we show up to work. Some of these questions are quickly answered; some are not. There is a lot at stake when we operate, and the majority of us act as safe as we can, but are we genuinely being as safe as we can be?

Training is just as crucial for sUAS operators as it is in any Public Safety Sector. There is a difference between operational and functionality checks and training. Firing up the sUAS at the beginning of a shift is not training. Flying around checking controls is not training. Maneuvering around buildings, through obstacles, and practicing evasive bird maneuvers is still not training. So let’s define training.

Training: The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior.

So the examples above are considered familiarization or pilot conditioning.

Practice will make you a better operator, and daily familiarizations will allow you to troubleshoot issues quicker. Don’t mistake me saying that daily practices/familiarizations are not necessary. THEY ARE CRUCIAL to safe operations.

There is no denying that the more you operate the equipment, whether in practice or service is valuable, but should not take place or be mistaken for training. So what is sUAS training? Well, training is basically learning, so sUAS training can be anything that teaches you more about sUAS operations. These lessons can come from anywhere.

The most common places are the internet, other pilots, sUAS classes, forums, etc., these are just some of the examples. These lessons should be created into drills repeatedly conducted, thus strengthening a pilot’s ability through repetition and conditioning.

So how do we drill on Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM)? What about Risk Vs. Reward? Those topics are often overlooked during drills and familiarizations. In my honest, professional opinion, you can get the same if not more out of classroom training as you can with an in-field training.

Risk vs. Reward can be conducted safely in a classroom, the same with ADM fundamentals. Every time a Pilot begins a flight, they should perform a risk assessment.

This assessment should be part of your preflight checks. Most of the time, we perform a risk assessment subconsciously, and even the pilot is unaware they did one.

Public safety personnel typically size up a scene quickly and accurately without being aware they did so. Situational awareness is almost engrained in our brains from our many years of sizing up scenes we were operating within.

An excellent example of an unknown risk assessment would be going to the “field over there because it’s less crowded” fewer people means less of a likelihood hood of people interfering with your drill, less chance someone can get hurt, less risk all around. Correct? Well, maybe it is, and perhaps it is not. There is not only one factor to consider; there are many. Perhaps it is less crowded because of several female mockingbirds attacking anything that comes close to their nests, or perhaps that part of the field is getting dirt from the neighboring baseball field getting blown on it every time the wind kicks up. I know these are lame examples, but the point is there is always more to consider.

It would be impossible to study or take into account every possible risk; however, it is easy to make an informed and educated guess as to the hazards that might or might not be apparent.

We know how weather affects our operations, we all have that “cut off point” where we wouldn’t operate. What would you do if the weather is dangerous to fly, but the reward is crucial? How far can you push your limits safely? Have you been trained, and have you prepared for these moments?

Weather is only one variable; our scenes are often dynamic and always evolving. It has not been uncommon to fly back to my L/Z and see a pumper directly over my landing pad. [Editor Note: I had a police car do the same thing to me on a busy scene. It happens.]

Who am I to place my landing pad far enough away from the scene to minimize some of the organized chaos that happens behind the fire-line? Maybe the 36-inch reflective fluorescent orange lighted landing pad wasn’t that noticeable.

Either way, my operation has now changed at the most crucial of times. During a landing. Keeping the drone at a safe altitude until my V/O and I can confirm a secure landing area, then I slowly bring the aircraft down to the new location while we both keep an eye out for any reason to abort the landing. Sounds simple right?

Well, it is simple only because I started returning to my landing zone with a 30% battery remaining. If I were to have started my return at 20%, the outcome might be completely different.

By the time my V/O and I scouted out and secured a new landing area, the sUAS might have gone into a return to home mode. Now I have to fight the sUAS that wants to land on top of the freshly positioned apparatus, while maintaining a secure landing zone, with annoying beeping emitting from the remote, the lights on the craft blinking red while staying situational aware of the dynamic always evolving scene, which is outside the chaotic fire scene.

Extra battery power allowed the V/O, and I most valuable of the resources needed to alter the landing zone, which is TIME. This may not be as easy and would be a lot more stressful if the craft was at a low battery. Time allows us to make rational decisions and plans and gives us the ability to implement them.

That little battery warning means you are running short of your most valuable resource TIME. Did you know that warning noise has physical effects on your body? The sound is designed to get your attention. It has been proven that these types of noises, similar to the low battery warning, can raise anxiety levels.

Increased anxiety levels can cause poor or rushed decision making. The main point is we need to plan and prepare for the unexpected. We need to be trained on the unexpected. We need to include these lessons in our drills. We should know how to manage our TIME. What do we do when minutes turn to seconds? How can we mitigate this risk? The answer is…WE CAN’T.

As sUAS Pilots, we should be operating our craft as if it can fall out of the sky at any given moment without warning.

I have seen ESC’s [Electronic Speed Controllers] burn out; motors fail, props break, batteries dislodge, GPS malfunction or multi-path, RF interference, bird attacks, in air collisions (usually a ball, rock, Frisbee, large caliper stream, etc.) the result was the sUAS crashed, or flew away. (But if an sUAS crashes in the woods and no-one is around to hear it did it really crash?) The moral of the story is to be aware of what is under your aircraft at all times.

Try to position your sUAS over an area with the least amount of probability to be damaged if it were to fall out of the sky unexpectedly.

Start every mission with a termination point. What is a termination point? This is the place you intend to crash as a last resort. I know it sounds counterproductive, but if you can’t bring the aircraft back safely, this is where you plan to crash it.

I keep emphasizing the word crash because an uncontrolled decent is precisely that. Sometimes you have limited controls, but do not mistake that for an emergency landing.

An emergency landing is when you land the aircraft on your terms, not the aircraft. You decide to land the aircraft due to some sort of reasoning, you still have all your controls, and can maintain full power during the decent.

The termination point is the final straw, the last hoorah, the last-ditch effort to safely bring the craft to the ground. This is the area you plan to walk to and pick up the pieces… not recover an intact sUAS (if that’s the case, you are indeed fortunate).

I almost treat everything under my aircraft as a termination point. Our scene is always evolving, so I watch the area under my sUAS just as much as the craft itself.

If someone or something wanders under my sUAS, I move the aircraft.

I do not waste my resources attempting to get them to move or to find someone to have them get from underneath me; I simply just move the aircraft.

If I cannot find a safe place to move to, THEN I LAND.

There is no reason I have to put anyone in jeopardy when I pilot my sUAS. I always keep in mind that it can fall out of the sky at any moment.

Operate on the side of caution and never let others’ safety come secondary to your mission.

Safety is always first and should never be less important than any part of your operation. Now that we have covered a lot let’s look into how we can become safer in our actions.

Well, for one, not every scene needs to be flown.

There are plenty of times sUAS is not the go-to tool in the toolbox.

My example for this is our high rise fires. There isn’t much information we can gather with an sUAS that we would not be able to obtain from ground level. The risk of GPS multi-path is higher, the risk of magnetic interference is greater, the area below the craft is more challenging to control and must be increased, there are many more risks and not that great of a reward.

We also have issues pushing the video feed to the I/C, which is typically positioned inside the building. If the people that need this sUAS data can not receive the data, there is no reason to operate.

We often use these active fire operations as drill exercises and not as sUAS operations. We make the notifications, and we go through the motions, we secure an area for take-off and landings, we preform our preflight checks, we analyze our risk vs. reward, we perform a pilot self-check, we establish our termination point, we even take off and fly. The only difference we are not focused on capturing data; we are focused solely on the underlining mechanics of our operation. Everything is the same except without the need for data.

We do not need to push our limitations.

Operational drills such as these build pilot and operator proficiency. We treat these as actual missions but focus solely on mission safety and not a mission objective.

Remember, there is no purpose; the only data you will have is generally discussed in your mission “Hot Wash” after the drill. So what kind of data are we talking about? What do we do with this data? How can we use this data to create a safer operation?

This data begins with the start of the tour. Pilots should be documenting everything……And I mean everything. The time it took to inspect the sUAS, battery levels, what was inspected and checked, how it was tested.

Make a Google form and document everything. Next should be airspace, checking for NOTAMS, TFRs, and any other airspace conflicts. Weather also should be recorded multiple times a day. A Pilot Assessment should also be conducted during this timeframe. This is just the bare minimum.

In my opinion, there are many more things that can and should be documented. When you receive a call, all this needs to be rechecked, this sounds like a long process, but it can be done rather quickly.

Most of this information changes ever so slightly, and sometimes there are significant changes such as approaching storms or pop up TFRs.

I usually write down when I arrive on the scene and the time I spin up the props down on a note pad carried in my pocket.

This gives me an average time it takes for my observer and me to do our necessary on scene checks and setup. During our post-flight review, we now know if what we did on scene setting up took longer or less than usual and what issues we encountered that caused the average set up a time to change.

We can now start building a safe and efficient setup procedure based on factual data. We can also use this time to review any flight data from our flight logs.

Flight logs are great, but they don’t paint the bigger picture. Flight logs are only necessary flight information. Some might include the weather, or the KP index, the number of images taken, or the GPS location of the pictures, but they do not give you the data you need to create efficient and safe workflows.

So as you can now see, a safe and successful sUAS operation begins at a pilot level.

The pilot is the only person who can decrease the risks. There is no obstacle avoidance, smart return to home, low battery warning, or parachute system that will make your sUAS operations less prone to danger.

Safety begins with the pilot making informed and educated decisions throughout the flight.

Pilots must be aware of ever-changing environments, situations, and more importantly, be prepared as best as possible for the unexpected. Frequent drills and pilot conditionings are great tools, but as I discussed before, training is paramount.

Training gives a pilot the tools to make more informed decisions based on facts.

Training allows pilots to develop new drills, create efficient and safe workflows, and provides the foundation for a pilot to build off. So stay informed, stay educated, learn as much as possible, and use what you learn.

Until next time…Stay Safe and Fly Safe!!!