Airlines and other commercial operators apply a rigorously systematic approach to identifying potential hazards and risks, and safety management systems have grown popular even in smaller-scale aviation. Unmanned aviators can benefit from adapting many elements of this approach.
A careful and methodical approach to safety adopted by operators around the world is a large part of why 2017 was the safest year on record for commercial airlines, according to the Aviation Safety Network. The safety benefits have helped persuade many general aviation operators to study, and in some instances, adapt and adopt their own safety management systems (SMS). Use of SMS by flight departments worldwide has been recognized and encouraged by aviation authorities.
As the FAA works to expand permitted operations and allow unmanned aircraft flights over people, or beyond visual line of sight, those who wish to secure waivers from the current restrictions of Part 107 can make a stronger case for approval by implementing SMS in their operations. CNN, for example, earned the first FAA waiver allowing unmanned aircraft operations over people in 2017, and noted in an October conference presentation that SMS implementation was an important part of earning that approval.
Argus International, a firm that conducts third-party safety audits of flight departments and operators in the manned aviation world, purchased the Unmanned Safety Institute in 2016 and has since worked to implement SMS and other best practices from the manned aviation world in unmanned operations.
“Aviation is inherently dangerous therefore we must mitigate risk to the lowest acceptable level. A functional Safety Management System (SMS) has been proven in manned aircraft flight operations to lower risk and the results of injured people, bent and broken aircraft… it is only logical that Safety Management Systems will do the same for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS's) flight operations,” said Mike Wilson, director of operations and UAS Master Flight Instructor at USI.
The FAA is likely to require the adoption of SMS along with implementation of detect-and-avoid technologies once flights beyond visual line of sight are permitted.
“The simple fact that manned and unmanned aircraft will share the same limited National Airspace System (NAS) is more than enough justification that they play under the same or at the very least similar rules and regulations. This would mandate UAS commercial operators develop and maintain a UAS SMS Program tailored for unmanned aircraft flight operations,” Wilson said.
Other manned aviation safety companies such as Wyvern are also adapting SMS for unmanned aircraft operators. While there is no hard data yet available to prove that implementation of manned protocols to unmanned aircraft improves safety, the number of UAV operators adopting SMS has increased. “ARGUS Unmanned currently services six big industry clients and over a dozen service providers,” said Jeff Lemasters, global sales manager for ARGUS Unmanned.
Education institutions such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering have been working on SMS curricula for more than five years, and are now promoting short courses for commercial operators interested in learning the basics of aviation safety practices.
“We started developing our SMS for Remotely Piloted Aircraft course five years ago. SMS is a proven safety technique, and it needs to be integrated with remotely piloted aircraft, the newest emerging aviation technology,” said Daniel Scalese, a project specialist in the Aviation Safety and Security Program at USC. “We now provide various SMS educational programs in two professional certificate programs; Aviation Safety and Security and Systems Safety.”
“The requirement for this universal safety standard was born from hazard, incident, accident, injury, death, bent and broken aircraft. Look, listen and learn from manned aviation by being proactive in UAS technology's early integration,” Wilson said.
Drones are aircraft, and students in these various programs are taught to apply the same care and attention to detail to all aircraft operations, manned and unmanned. Even smaller-scale operators such as land surveyors and engineers who incorporate unmanned aircraft in their operations would benefit from adopting an aviation mentality and a methodical and proactive approach to risk management, and understanding that once their aircraft are airborne, they are aviators and responsible for the safety of people and property on the ground.