Choosing the right drone hardware for public safety applications is a critical step in establishing a drone program. How can public safety professionals sort through the hype and find the right tool for their needs? Steve Rhode gives his best advice on getting started. (Check out Public Safety Flight’s recent podcast, where DRONELIFE Editor Miriam McNabb joins Steve to discuss how developments like Type Certification may change the industry.)
The following is the first in a biweekly series on public safety drone issues by Steve Rhode, Chief Pilot with the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy, and founder of Public Safety Flight, a website dedicated to information about the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), UAVs, aircraft, and drones in public safety.
Getting Real Results from Public Safety Drone Operations
I recently learned about the Hype Cycle. It certainly seems to fit to what many early adopters have experienced in public safety drone operations. According to the Hype Cycle hypothesis, the advent of new technology is followed by a steep uptick that eventually crests in a “peak of inflated expectations” only to stall out and plummet into a valley of disillusionment.
That certainly feels like the path we’ve been on with so many departments running out to purchase the latest and greatest drones only to discover the results are not what they thought they would achieve.
In a recent podcast I recorded with DRONELIFE editor Miriam McNabb, Miriam drove this point home with me with her automotive history lesson.
We talked about how new technology develops and takes time to develop the infrastructure to support it. We see that playing out now with the FAA developing new requirements, drones pursuing airworthiness certification, and expanding the current rules. Those changes will drive public safety drone operations into the future. But the hurdle we are overcoming right now is managing the disappointment in results obtained.
For many, getting into public safety drone operations has been a ready-fire-aim scenario. People got excited about departments buying drones and flying, and then they have to get into the game. You can’t believe how much equipment is sitting on shelves now because of disappointment.
I believe there is no sense in wasting a magnificent failure, so let’s use those lessons for good instead of being trapped in the trough of disillusionment.
Starting a Public Safety Drone Program: Lessons Learned
Here is what we can learn from the early adopter pain:
- Before you rush out to buy a drone, the best thing you can do is talk to your staff and command staff about what they think a drone could offer that would be helpful.
- You should then pass an FAA Part 107 exam to earn your FAA certificate as a commercial UAS pilot. You should do that even if you will fly as a COA pilot for a government entity. The official Part 107 education will begin your needed awareness about the rules and regulations we have to fly within.
- Once you understand the department expectations and match those against what we can legally do as pilots, you can better understand what a drone can deliver.
- Once you’ve identified the limited situations that the drone could assist with, you need to study why drones fall out of the sky and crashing every day. Understanding your risk is the mark of a good pilot. You can visit ReportDroneAccident.com and read accident reports.
Those are logical steps you can take as early as possible in launching your public safety drone program, but those are not the most challenging steps.
Can Your Department Benefit from Drones in the Way They Expect?
I think this tip will surprise you. The most challenging thing about starting a successful public safety drone program has nothing to do with the drone, cameras, video streaming, or the payload.
The biggest hurdle is the process and where it meets reality.
Think about this: in fast-moving incidents, the Incident Commander (IC) does not have a lot of extra time for you to ask them to watch a video feed or incorporate what information you might capture. They are already often drinking through a fire hose of data and information.
My personal opinion is that before you start spending your budget on hardware, you should go to incidents and observe the situation with your pilot brain. Observe the following items:
- Look around, think about where you would fly given the people on the ground since you can’t fly over people other than the pilot and visual observer. Would it even be legal to fly here?
- Think about what your drone could tell the IC that they don’t already know. For example, you don’t need a drone in the air to see the house is on fire.
- Consider the result the IC hopes to achieve and see if it is even possible under the current flight rules. For example, do they want you to fly over trees and look for a missing person? You can’t if you are going to be beyond the Visual Line of Sight in most situations.
If you conclude that a drone today will not deliver the results your department wants, that is perfectly okay. It is far better to avoid personal civil liability as a pilot if you have an accident or incident if you were never going to meet the goals and expectations non-pilots think you can deliver.
Don’t be in a rush to invest in a solution today that will result in disappointment and unachieved expectations. With some incredible new airworthiness certified drones coming that will allow us to fly longer, further, and have more capabilities, success is not far away.
They tell me the new certified safe drones will give me more hair and take some pounds off, but I think that’s marketing hype.
We all want the same thing. In my book, that is to reduce pilot civil liability by flying safely within the FARs, delivering the help the IC wants, and to be a critical resource to provide actionable information otherwise unavailable.