Selecting the right drone hardware for public safety applications is a critical step in setting up a drone program. How can public safety professionals sort the hype and find the right tool for their needs? Steve Rhode gives his best advice to get started. (Read the latest Public Safety Flight podcast in which DRONELIFE editor Miriam McNabb and Steve discuss how developments like type certification can change the industry.)
The following is the first in a bi-weekly series on drone public safety issues by Steve Rhode, chief pilot of the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy and founder of Public Safety Flight, a website that provides information on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles Aircraft systems (UAS), UAVs, airplanes and drones in public safety.
Get real results from operating public safety drones
I recently learned about the hype cycle. It certainly seems to fit what many early adopters have experienced in public safety drone operations. According to the hype cycle hypothesis, the emergence of new technologies is followed by a steep rise, which ultimately leads to a “high point of inflated expectations” and then plunges into the valley of disillusionment.
It certainly feels like the path we’ve gone with so many departments buying the latest and greatest drones only to find out that the results are not what they expected.
In a podcast I recently recorded with DRONELIFE editor Miriam McNabb, Miriam took that point home with her lesson in automotive history.
We’ve talked about how new technology is evolving and it takes time to develop the infrastructure to support it. We see that the FAA is now developing new requirements, drones are aiming for airworthiness certification and expanding the current rules. These changes will propel public safety drone operations into the future. The hurdle we are currently clearing is overcoming the disappointment in the results achieved.
For many, getting started operating drones for public safety was a fireproof scenario. People got excited about departments that bought drones and flew, and then they had to come into play. You can’t believe how much gear is on the shelves now because of disappointment.
I think there is no point in wasting a great failure. So instead of getting caught in the trough of disenchantment, let’s use these lessons forever.
Launching a Public Safety Drone Program: Lessons Learned
Here’s what we can learn from early adopter pain:
- Before you venture out to buy a drone, the best place to talk to your staff and command personnel about what they think a drone could be useful for.
- You should then pass an FAA Part 107 exam to earn your FAA certification as a Commercial UAS Pilot. You should also do this if you are flying as a COA pilot for a government agency. The official Part 107 training will create your necessary awareness of the rules and regulations within which we must fly.
- Understanding the department’s expectations and comparing them to what we as pilots can legally do will help you better understand what a drone can do.
- Once you’ve identified the limited situations the drone could help in, it’s time to investigate why drones fall and crash from the sky every day. Understanding your risk is the hallmark of a good pilot. You can visit ReportDroneAccident.com and read accident reports.
These are logical steps that you can take as early as possible to start your public safety drone program. However, these aren’t the toughest steps.
Can your department benefit from drones as much as they expect?
I think this tip will surprise you. The biggest challenge in starting a successful public safety drone program has nothing to do with the drone, cameras, video streaming, or payload.
The biggest hurdle is the process and where it meets reality.
Think about it: for fast-moving incidents, the Incident Commander (IC) doesn’t have much extra time to ask them to watch a video feed or record the information you may be capturing. You already often drink through a fire hose with data and information.
My personal opinion is that before you start spending your budget on hardware, go to incidents and watch the situation with your pilot’s brain. Please note the following points:
- Look around and think about where you would be flying to if people were on the ground as you can only fly over the pilot and visual observer. Would it even be legal to fly here?
- Think what your drone might tell the IC that they don’t know yet. For example, you don’t need a drone in the air to see the house is on fire.
- Consider the result the IC is trying to achieve and see if it is even possible under current flight rules. For example, do they want you to fly over trees looking for a missing person? You cannot if you are out of visual line of sight in most situations.
If you conclude that a drone is not producing the results your department wants today, that’s perfectly fine. It is far better to avoid personal civil liability as a pilot when you have an accident or incident, when you would never meet the goals and expectations that non-pilots believe are possible.
Do not be in a rush to invest in a solution today that will lead to disappointments and unfulfilled expectations. With some incredible new airworthiness certified drones allowing us to fly longer, farther and more capable, success is not far behind.
They tell me the new certified safe drones will give me more hair and shed a few pounds, but I think this is marketing hype.
We all want the same thing. In my book, this means reducing pilot civil liability by safely flying within the FARs, providing the assistance requested by the IC, and being an important resource in providing actionable information that is otherwise not available.
Steve Rhode is an FAA Certified Commercial and Instrument Certified Airplane Pilot, an Experienced Part 107 UAS Commercial Pilot, and Chief Pilot of the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy. He advises drone pilots through the Homeland Security Information Network and as a drone expert on the FAA Safety Team. Steve is the founder of Public Safety Flight, a website that contains news, honest information, tips, and stories about unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAS), UAVs, aircraft, and drones in fire departments and other public safety niches. Sign up for the Public Safety Flight newsletter to add to Steve’s personal email list or contact Steve here. On the plane, his FAA callsign is Fire Demon 1: and Firebird 1 with the drone.
Miriam McNabb is editor-in-chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a marketplace for professional drone services, and a fascinating observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Author of over 3,000 articles focusing on the commercial drone space, Miriam is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam graduated from the University of Chicago and has over 20 years experience in high-tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For advice or writing in the drone industry, email Miriam.
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