Best Practices for Drone Fleet Management
(Will Paden & Anthony Pucciarella)
- Keeping records on the condition of aircraft and crew members has been a standard in aviation for decades.
- Unmanned aviation has invited a new kind of aviation professional to the national airspace who doesn’t have the same training and awareness of proper fleet management that is commonplace for crewed flight operations.
- Software solutions like AlarisPro are helping sUAS service providers and their customers ensure the highest level of safety is adhered in an effort to mitigate the human and mechanical risks associated with sUAS operations.
They discussed documentation for unmanned aviation operations and best practices for doing so. They were able to answer several questions regarding documentation systems and the benefits of implementing such practices in UAS organizations.
Today we’re talking about documentation for unmanned aviation operations and best practices for doing so.
Before we begin, I want to introduce Tony.
Tony is a retired U.S. Navy commander. He served as a patrol plane mission commander, operational test pilot, VIP pilot, and aviation engineering duty officer. Before that Tony got a degree from Ohio State University and later received an MBA from Loyola University, Maryland.
Tony, welcome to show.
TONY: Thanks, Brendan. Nice to see you again, Will. Thanks for inviting me, I appreciate it.
BRENDAN: Yeah, before we get too deep into anything and I give Will his introduction as well, Tony, anything to add to that brief introduction as far as what kind of context you’re bringing to today’s conversation?
TONY: Yeah, so I’ve spent pretty much a lifetime in aviation and within that realm leveraging my aeronautical engineering degree and just my interest in engineering and in maintenance.
I’ve served in maintenance roles as well as operations roles in the Navy, and always gravitated towards the maintenance role. I’ve always been interested in why things break, how you keep them from breaking, and getting metrics for how to prevent that from happening again.
Honestly, when you’re in crewed aviation or manned aviation you’re making decisions that are life dependent, and the same in a maintenance and pilot role.
I think that gets lost sometimes in the unmanned world because folks don’t think in those terms. Nobody’s on the aircraft, but there are people we’re flying over.
There’s also heavy or expensive equipment on the aircraft, and the aircraft itself is also expensive. So, we do need to have the same type of diligence that we have when we approach those types of issues.
All these things in my life have kind of gravitated towards the software that we created back in 2016. Honestly, back then nobody would even listen to me it was kind of like I was the crazy guy talking about things.
Over the last few years, we were skating to where the puck was going to be, not where it is. What’s happened now is the market has kind of met us and now we’re getting a lot more interest, and that has given us time to develop the product.
But that’s how all my background filtered into why we created AlarisPro.
BRENDAN: Well very cool. Again, we’re excited to talk to you today.
Obviously, I don’t want to upstage the “El Presidente.”
Will Peden, President of Soaring Eagle Technologies. A couple of decades of manned aviation experience as well as one of the founders here at Soaring Eagle Technologies
Will, welcome to the show!
WILL: Thanks, Brendan. Thanks, Tony.
Yeah, a couple decades in aviation, like Tony said, you start to develop a thought process regardless of what kind of aircraft you’re flying.
You still have to do maintenance. As a maintenance test pilot for the U.S. Army on Blackhawks, as well as almost a decade turning wrenches and being a mechanic on Blackhawks, and then on the civilian side as well.
My background obviously gravitated and continues to gravitate towards unmanned aviation mindset.
When I met Tony and the team, there was an obvious hole in the industry for this type of data collection and analyzation.
I’ve told Tony numerous times that it was needed. It was absolutely needed. We’re one of the companies that is really pushing the boundaries on what can be done.
The only way you take it to that next level is, that you have to do these types of things. You have to have the SOPs. You have to have safety protocols in place. You got to have the training.
With all of that, you still have to manage your fleet. Really it wouldn’t matter if it’s aircraft or trucks or whatever. There’s some sort of fleet management system out there and nobody had taken the time to truly figure out what is needed to manage the sUAS fleets.
So, we’re super excited to be partners with the AlarisPro. We literally use it every day uploading data.
It helps us coordinate with our other partners, some of the OEMs out there because they’ve also joined.
In 10 years from now people are going to look back and go, “Well, that was the start of figuring out how to properly manage UAS fleets.” We really just want to continue to expand this technology.
What Should sUAS Operators Be Tracking?
BRENDAN: So, Soaring Eagle Technologies is a UAS service provider. We partner with engineering teams to provide aerial mapping and inspection services.
Tony for providers like that, or anybody who’s conducting drone operations for mapping or inspection use cases, what are some of the first things that folks start tracking, or should be documenting?
TONY: So, there’s the two primary areas that are the most important that feed into the normal traditional fleet management. The aircraft the pilots.
So, with AlarisPro, what we do is when Will puts his team in, or when his folks put their team in, we track not just their currency – when’s the last time they’ve flown, and you can adjust that based on additional crew requirements – but we also put in crew resource management such as when they’ve had model checkouts and all the other things that go into making sure that person is ready.
You want to make sure the aircraft and the crew are ready, in addition to doing all the pre-flighting and everything else. We track all of that.
In fact, one of the new features that we have coming out here at the end of August, is non-time based as well.
So, Will could say, this person’s qualified to fly these aircraft, or in this group that we have they can do BVLOS, or they cannot. You could have BVLOS pilots, or some type of segregation of skill sets that you could break out in the certifications, and it’ll actually show you who’s qualified to do what.
So, the crew is a big part of it. We have their hours and everything else that we put into the system.
Then the aircraft. The aircraft is a big piece that gets a little more complex than the crew at times.
This is because on the aircraft we want to know all the components that are on it by model. Which high-tech servo, or volt servo, or whatever is on, or which model number, when it has to be replaced and how many hours are spent on it so we can tell you when it needs to be replaced.
We track that in a very detailed fashion for the aircraft.
But then also any inspections that are coming to preventative maintenance inspections, or even custom inspections. In the military we had to inspect the aircraft every 72 hours or every 24 hours depending on what you were doing.
So, you can put those in, and we allow that flexibility. We have preventive maintenance inspections that the OEMs put in their manuals, or if they don’t, we have some recommendations that we put in.
Will and the Soaring Eagle Technologies team can put in their own inspections to say, ‘Hey look, that’s what the OEM does. They may do every 100 cycles but I’m going to do an inspection every 50 cycles.’
Or ‘I’m going to do an inspection every six months instead of yearly,’ or ‘every 100 hours.’
We track them by calendar days, flight hours, cycles, or any combination of those. It could be 100 cycles in 50 hours. Really understanding what’s going on in that aircraft and giving you reports as to where everything is on that aircraft, meaning in its life cycle.
That’s what we do, and that’s probably the primary piece is getting the aircraft put in properly and then the crew as well.
Thirdly, we track batteries and payloads so on the payloads that’s the big piece.
You’re doing mapping and you’ve got LiDAR mapping payloads that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even a small business can end up having a half million plus, or a million dollars’ worth of LIDAR and other sensors in their stable.
We add those payloads and they can go on to certain aircraft. So, when you select an aircraft only those payloads that work with that aircraft will go on there and then we start giving you metrics as to cost per flight hour and cost per sorting.
We even do maintenance labor costs and things. It depends on how far you want to go with this. But those are some of the big things, putting in aircraft pilots, then payloads, and then batteries.
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How Do You Systematically Collect sUAS Operations Data So It Can Be Used to Make Business and Safety Decisions?
BRENDAN: Okay Will, this makes sense in terms of the benefit that comes from tracking certain aspects of an sUAS operation, but for an operation like Soaring Eagle Technologies, you’ve got folks in the field mobilizing to different locations, for different projects, for different customers…
What does it really take to get this operational information into the system so that you have a clean dataset that can be used effectively?
What are some of the things we need to consider when trying to collect and maintain drone operations data?
WILL: To reiterate the most important thing about collecting this data is the safety aspect. Everything we’re doing we’re building around our safety case.
If we’re not collecting this data, we’re not managing our fleet, and to manage our fleet we have to teach our pilots how to properly upload data into the system, which is very easy.
There are times that we’re uploading data literally from the field in a phone. It’s down to that level. It’s that easy.
We can also do bulk uploads. We can collect a lot of data and then do bulk uploads.
The important thing is, as the management team, we can then analyze, how much does it cost to fly an unmanned aircraft?
Why is it costing so much? What is breaking? We can start planning for that, and we can figure out before we send a crew out in the field. We can be able to realize, “Wait a minute, this type of aircraft historically, somewhere around 120 hours, there’s motor issues.” Well, if that aircraft is approaching that, we don’t send it on a three-week project. We substitute it out, keep it back if we can’t get the maintenance done before the team has to leave. So, little things like that are invaluable. That type of data, getting it into the system is simple as just uploading it. On the back end it analyzes and puts it in a situation where I, or one of our operations managers, can effectively manage the system.
Where Should You Be Collecting Operations Data for sUAS Operations?
BRENDAN: So, is that data that’s then being collected in the field an additional step while somebody’s in the field?
Or is that something that happens back at the office?
Is data being collected and inputted into the system in a combination of ways?
WILL: It’s a combination. Every situation is dynamic.
We’re flying LIDAR in areas where we don’t even have cell service. We’re doing drone inspections on power lines in the middle of the swamps.
So, it just depends. The great thing is though, it can ingest that data and it can process it even if we’re three days behind uploading data. It’s so easy just to be able to upload and then the system manages it.
The AlarisPro product does automatic alerts. It says, “Hey, you need to take a look at this.”
It saves so much time for our management team. It makes it more effective, and it makes us safer. As we look at bigger and bigger projects, we can truly tell our customers, “Hey, this is what our fleet does.”
We’re no longer just throwing meaningless numbers at them. We have reports. We can screenshare and show utility and mapping customers exactly what we’re looking at. It’s super important.
What can you provide large companies with to put them at ease?
BRENDAN: Okay, from the safety aspect…
Say you’re working with a large utility that has safety professionals and a formal aviation department. They are used to doing aviation work a certain way. Call it a manned aviation standard that they adhere to which dictates – among other things – a certain amount of training…
A lot of the vendors that they might be talking to on a regular basis don’t have that same type of standardization that crewed aircraft professionals see as business as usual.
What are some of the things that you would show to a company or utility like this to help them understand Soaring Eagle’s regard for safety?
WILL: It comes down to the most basic form of maintenance…
When are things breaking?
When they do break, how do you docent it?
Who’s doing the repairs?
What is your justification for putting it back in the air?
That’s manned aviation maintenance at its core. If you go into a hangar today and you find that manager that’s over all the maintenance, they’re going to be able to tell you the status of each aircraft.
That’s just what you would expect as an aviation professional. That’s what I would expect.
What we show our customers is exactly that. We can look at a project here in Mississippi or a project in California, with just a couple clicks of a button.
We can show our customers how we manage that flow, how we ensure our aircraft are held to a standard.
Until the FAA mandates a lot of this, it’s on companies like ours to ensure that we’re pushing the industry forward in the right direction.
Is it more expensive?
Yes. It’s one more thing that we have to upload. But, if somebody’s not pushing this, it’s going to be too easy for the industry to not adopt the proper techniques and then the industry is not going to grow.
We’re just talking about all the v-log stuff.
Now look, if we want to jump into the safety case of beyond line of sight. Well at that point you really do have to manage your system because you’re launching that aircraft and it’s potentially going 5, 10, 15 miles out.
You can’t see it; you have to ensure that the aircraft is maintained to the highest standard. It’s no different than if I get to a helicopter that I have to fly three or four hundred nautical miles across country, same concept.
I have to look at the weather and make sure the aircraft was maintained to a certain standard. Because if something goes wrong, and let’s face it that’s the safety case for sUAS, it’s a lot smaller, or it’s a lot lighter, there is a lot less chance to cause damage, but there still is that chance.
If you’re not using proper techniques, you increase that possibility.
Our customers are very excited to see that somebody’s taking a stance.
How Can Managers of sUAS Programs Get Buy-In on Operations Documentation at Their Organization?
BRENDAN: At Soaring Eagle Technologies you’ve got a lot of folks with manned aviation experience. So that buy-in for documentation is pretty easy to come by.
Tony, you’re working with a lot of different organizations. I can think of engineering firms, survey firms, who are like, ‘Oh, cool. Unmanned aircraft.’ They’re seeing the business application of it, but they’re not necessarily coming from a traditional or crewed aviation background.
How can somebody who’s tasked, as an sUAS manager or department manager who’s now incorporating drones as part of their toolkit, try to achieve that buy-in for operations documentation?
What are some of the things that you’ve seen work for different types of organizations?
TONY: What I’ve seen is when you’ve got groups like Soaring Eagle that are front runners in the industry, that’s a distinguisher for them.
So, when Will, I’m assuming, when you went after your BVLOS waiver, that you’re using that data and showing them and just have confidence.
We talked to a lot of folks in the regulatory environment, and they know what we’re doing, and it makes sense because it’s plug and play with what they’re used to seeing in crewed aviation.
It really serves as a distinguisher, so for Soaring Eagle, and some other customers that are out there pushing the limits, it really breaks puts you into a different category of drone service provider.
Like Will was saying, when customers look at you, they see that you’re different because you’re doing things that others aren’t.
Will and I have a background in a whole career in aviation. We’ve viewed this for years since we went to AUVSI. We’ve had a booth at Exponential every year since 2016 when we launched the software.
And I’m not exaggerating, the first year we were there we couldn’t pull people out of the aisle to talk about reliability because they didn’t see it as an issue. Within one year it just started ramping up because people started realizing what we were doing.
Since then I’ve realized that this is a different industry. There’s not a lot of Wills and Tonys and career aviators out there in the industry just yet.
I think they are coming, and I’ve seen a lot more enter the industry. But ever since that time that I realized that the industry doesn’t know what they need to know, I’ve viewed it as a way for me to have a role to educate them.
That’s what we’ve been doing. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, it’s just trying to help them understand that we can help them. That this is data, again, skating to where the puck is going and not where it is today.
We know that this is needed, we know that the FAA is not just going to relax all the standards and say, “Go, we trust you.” They’re going to have to see data, and so what we’ve done is we’ve put a lot of time into our customer success team with Angie who leads our team to make sure that everybody gets the answers.
We do a very formatted implementation process as we bring people into the system, and especially those that don’t necessarily have an aviation background. So, we don’t get tired of the questions.
I guess Brendan, to answer your question, when somebody needs help, we jump to our help desk.
We jump on things immediately and we want to help them. It’s not just a “Here’s how you find the answer.” It’s a “Let’s walk you through and make sure you understand why we’re doing it that way.”
We get requests sometimes that we say no to. Somebody will say, “Well this is what we want to do.” One of the common ones used to be, “Hey, we want to have a few pilots flying the aircraft at the same time.”
I’m like, “Well that that doesn’t make sense.” That goes against what we’re trying to do with aviation. We’re trying to get the pilots to be less of a role and have the systems do more of the work.
So, it’s helping them understand why we’re doing these things. When I talk to Will it’s a no-brainer. He gets it because we speak the same language. But what I’m trying to do is help the industry understand the language that Will and I have been speaking for a couple of decades.
What Hurdles Does an Organization Experience as They Begin to Document Drone Operations?
BRENDAN: Okay, well I guess I’m curious now. In customer success, what are some of those first hurdles or surprises that folks are coming across as their onboarding to a system like AlarisPro?
TONY: So, we’ve onboarded large customers. We’re in the process now of NOAA we were releasing that news on Tuesday. We won a five-year contract with the National Geographic Administration and we’re releasing that notice on Tuesday. So, we’re going through that with large organizations. The USDA. The Fire Service was one of the larger ones that we onboarded, and it starts with us understanding what systems they have.
As we get more of these larger customers the delta between what we have in the system and what they’re using is normally very small, but we have to understand and make sure that we have all those systems built out because we build each system based on a configuration.
We have all the DJIs and everything else that’s common equipment in there. We’ve also got some of these custom ones, or larger systems, in there.
We wanted to make sure we get the systems right and more importantly, after we get that, one of the most important things is to make sure that we understand their workflows and how they’re structured.
It’s a tiered account system where an individual department has its own account, but all that data flows up into, what we call, a tier 2 account where you can see how one division’s data looks and then you can combine all that data to see how all your divisions look.
When we work with a new customer we need to understand how they’re structured so that we can set up that account, and your team can set up the account, appropriately so from that point it just becomes marching through the process that we have for bringing them on board.
Making sure they’re trained and that everything is set to go and once they get through that process which can be – depending on how many people and how complex their operation is – a week to a couple of months. We go at their pace.
Once they get through that process it’s on autopilot. It just kind of goes by itself and we’ve made this pretty simple.
We used to get folks that said, “Well, we want everything to be automated like the DJI go4 app.” That comes with a huge cost, especially with that manufacturer.
What we’ve said is, our customers are the ones that aren’t going to complain about eight seconds to enter some unique safety data that’s going to get them unique reports back.
If it’s somebody that really can’t invest those eight seconds, then it’s per flight, which is not a huge investment, then they’re probably not a fit.
But even then, what we’ve done is we’ve created this small device that they can put on so that they don’t have to input a lot of data.
We should have that in full release next year, but we’ve been working on this for a few years to make it even easier.
What we don’t want to do is lower the bar to the data that’s needed to provide the right safety information. What we’re trying to do is just make it easier to get to that bar, but we’re not going to lower it.
How Much of an Adjustment is Required?
BRENDAN: If you’re trying to pull insights from data, your insight is really only as strong as the data itself.
Data stewardship is huge, you have to take the time to collect it preoperly.
I would imagine, Will, in field operations like that of Soaring Eagle Technologies, this becomes part of the checklist.
The guys are out in the field, they have their binders, they’re doing their pre-flight checks.
Capturing some of this data is probably happening at the beginning of the day, the end of the day, and then it also sounds like it’s happening back at the office or wherever they’re mobilizing from. How much adjustment has the Soaring Eagle team had to make to their standard operating procedures and their checklist?
Is it just as simple as adding a line here and a line there, or are we adding a lot more than eight seconds to capture data?
WILL: No, no, no, it really is as simple as Tony said.
Again, Soaring Eagle has the mindset of manned aviation, so it was a very seamless adaptation.
Obviously, some training was involved, but it was a very seamless adaptation to using the software. Everybody within the organization day one, we tell everybody we are an aviation company, and our tool just happens to be unmanned technology.
When you have that mindset, what’s uploading a file?
Or when you’re doing your risk assessment before a drone operation, dropping it in there actually makes your pilots feel better because they know now that they’re protected because we’re collecting the data.
They can say, “No, I actually did a risk assessment.”
It goes back to the fundamentals of aviation. One hundred something years ago when man started flying, nobody thought about any of this. Over this last hundred years there’s been a lot of things written in blood.
Instead of rewriting those same chapters and books, having that data up front, whether it’s weather or maintenance on the aircraft, or when was the last time somebody flew that type of aircraft to make sure that they’re still properly trained, they haven’t forgotten how to go through that specific checklist, all of that’s important.
When you’re already doing a checklist, when you’re already doing those things, it’s literally just one more step. I haven’t gotten any negative feedback.
Tony hit on something, and that something is customer service. Phenomenal.
Obviously, Tony’s product is a fairly new technology or software, even though it’s been in development. But in the Army, we like to say, “If you really want to break something, you give it to the private.”
And as AlarisPro has deployed, and as we’ve used it, and we’ve been using it for a while now, we’ll find something that doesn’t work or didn’t upload.
Every single time we send an email with our questions and concerns, the team’s just right on it. It’s been an amazing partnership. I always talk about how partnerships are what is going to get us to the next level.
There’s no way Soaring Eagle can do this by themselves. We have to have super strong partnerships with the OEMs of the aircraft, we got to have partnerships like with Tony and his team.
It just takes a lot to bring brand new technology to market, even though it’s been around, we’ve been flying drones since 2015, but it’s still pretty much brand-new technology.
Mainstream media is just starting to pick it up. You’re talking less than 10 percent of the utilities in the nation were flying drones on power lines two years ago.
PG&E obviously pushed that to the next level and that PG&E project just really highlighted the need for software like what Tony created.
There were a lot of people out there that just didn’t understand, and they flew the aircraft all day every day, and they started having crashes. Motor failures, battery failures, and it’s just because most of them honestly just didn’t know.
I’m not casting stones at anybody; it’s just that I was raised in aviation.
Tony, he’s been around aviation a long time, so what seems like a very common sense, second nature thing, to us, is not so for the vast majority of people out there.
BRENDAN: It sounds to me, as new as unmanned aviation is, there’s a lot of lessons and wisdom that can be pulled from manned aviation.
We have over a hundred years of experience. Organizations, whether they’re drone service providers or asset owners hiring service providers, don’t have to reinvent the wheel on this subject.
A lot of these things were figured out by aviators who came before us. You can avoid some nasty and dangerous scenarios by leveraging the expertise and the wisdom that comes from folks who already have decades of aviation experience behind them.
I want to wrap things up here. You both have been super generous with your time today, but as far as operations documentation for unmanned systems goes and best practices, I’ll give you each an opportunity here for any final thoughts or things you want folks to walk away from today’s conversation with.
TONY: Just highlighting something you just brought up. In the military, we say, you don’t need to bleed to know how to do it, and you don’t want to have to relearn things.
I’ve owned airplanes, personal airplanes, for most of my life and have been flying my whole life, and what I really didn’t like is how there was this connection that that was missing between other operators.
From blogs and things, you can find some stuff out. But if a customer in Japan, Australia, or anywhere else is having an issue with one of the aircraft that Will and his team has in their system that they’re using in their fleet, in manned aviation you don’t know about that.
When I was flying gulfstreams, unless I was on a blog or something where somebody else would report that, I really had third party that was connecting me to other operators.
That’s one of the things that I wanted to do in the software. We call it the safety ecosystem. So, we’ve done that.
We just had some saves a few months ago, or a month before last, where we had some issues. We have another one that we’re about to put out that we think will have a big impact based on some things that we’re seeing.
We had a component that was failing well below its target cycle, and we put out a notice.
We actually had aircraft stage from that, and some of them were carrying LIDAR, so what’s the value of that save?
That’s kind of the cherry on top. Not only are we doing all the safety reporting, but we’re also doing something that’s not even in manned aviation. We’re connecting operators to the safety ecosystem so that Will doesn’t have to experience the same issue that somebody else had that he doesn’t know that’s flying the same aircraft somewhere else.
I just wanted to highlight that as we close out.
I appreciate this. Will, it’s always great to see you and I appreciate the partnership. Thank you, Brendan, same. I appreciate all the time.
BRENDAN: Thanks again, Tony. We appreciate your insight.
Will, any final thoughts, or anything you want folks to walk away from today’s conversation with?
WILL: It just goes back to what we have been talking about. We’ve said it a couple times during this call, and I’ve said it countless times before, if everybody’s a good steward of their company and they truly want to grow this industry, they’re going to look at solutions like what Tony and they put together.
The only way we survive as an industry is by people doing it the right way. At some point if there’s too many cowboys out there and they’re just not doing proper management, proper maintenance, the industry’s going to get a bad stigma and people will stop using it.
I would encourage people, if you don’t know or understand, to reach out to somebody. Reach out to Tony’s team, or you can reach out to us. We’ll share the importance of this.
I talk about this all the time, aviation safety training is all one hundred percent incorporated in UAS, regardless of your thought process.
We’re operating in the national airspace; it doesn’t matter how you want to slice it. So, those things are important.
Anybody that listens to this and has questions, just reach out to Tony’s team. They’re phenomenal when it comes to answering that stuff.
Tony, I appreciate everything and am looking forward to what’s coming in the future. Hopefully we have a lot more conversations in the near future because I might need to increase our account there.
TONY: Those are great conversations.
WILL: That’s right.
WILL: Thank you for putting this on.
BRENDAN: Thanks again guys. Thank you to everyone who’s tuning in. If you have any questions, like Will said, reach out.
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I’m Brendan Alan Barrett joined today by Will Paden and Anthony (Tony) Pucciarella. Thanks for tuning in and we’ll see you all again real soon.
WILL: Thanks guys.
TONY: Thanks, appreciate it.