In previous posts we’ve talked about the costs of setting up and running an internal drone operations. But what about the liabilities? What level of risk is your business willing to take on when it comes to putting a drone into the hands of a field operator?
The good news is that the situation today is much better than a few years ago. Drones are being increasingly integrated into the national airspace and, when managed by professional teams, have an outstanding safety record.
But that doesn’t mean there are no risks. Risks exist for your equipment, your business, and potentially even for you.
By far the most common risk of drone operation is tied to equipment loss and damage.
One of the very first jobs we did in the solar sector was a thermal scan of a larger photovoltaic power plant. It was spring in the California Central Valley, and the weather was impeccable; light breeze, no clouds and mild temperatures. In short, it was a seemingly perfect day.
For this job we were flying with a fixed wing drone—a drone which, when viewed in the air from above, looks surprisingly similiar to a raptor or bird of prey.
As it turns out, birds of prey have that exact same opinion.
We weren’t even in the air for 5 minutes before a menacing gang of young red-tail hawks began to congregate near by. Red-tail hawks don’t normally gather in groups—except when it’s mating season, when these birds have a very strong opinion about new neighbors.
We soon found ourselves in what can only be described as a World War II dogfight between our drone and a gang of as many as 5 red-tail hawks intent on tearing our hardware apart and sending it back to terra firma.
First they tore off the nose cover, then an aileron, and then we watched helplessly as our $30k piece of equipment went into a tailspin like a smoking Spitfire under the guns of a Messerschmitt. Round 1 of the Battle of the Solar Fields had gone to the birds and it soon became a Captain Morgan’s weekend for our aspiring young business.
Our insurance claim covered the losses, but it costed us weeks of downtime and a delay in delivery to our client. We learned when to fly and how to use evasive maneuvers to avoid raptors, but the reality is that anyone who’s been flying drones professionally knows one thing for certain:
There will inevitably come a point at which you’re going to experience a loss of control—either for technical reasons or other reasons beyond your control.
Luckily, when this happens over an empty field, the only damage is to your checkbook and maybe your pilot’s ego.
But what happens if your crash occurs in a more crowded area?
Someone once famously said that the flying characteristic of a helicopter whose engine suddenly stops working is very close to that of a bank vault. That statement is probably more fairly directed at drones than at helicopters.
The point is that everything has a terminal velocity when dropped from above, and unless you’ve wings or a chute to slow your fall, you’re going to have a hard landing.
A 165-pound human has a terminal velocity of about 134 mph while a 5-ounce baseball will “only” reach about 77 mph. Depending on the size of your drone and its drag coefficient, its terminal velocity will likely be less than that – for a standard DJI probably around 30-40mph.
The good news—if you want to call it that—is that it takes about 12 seconds for an object to hit those speeds. Since most drones fly under 400 feet, they almost never reach terminal velocity. But I think we can agree that it doesn’t matter much whether you look up to see a drone plummeting towards you from 800 or 200 feet—it’s bad news either way.
In the last several years, more than a few drone operators have faced penalties, been sued, and in at least one case even gone to jail for operating drones in an unsafe manner.
Choosing where and how to fly over a commercial solar array in a relatively busy area is not a trivial decision. Done incorrectly, at a minimum the operator will most certainly be violating FAA regulations.
A key question for any drone operation is whether the personality and background of the operator lend themselves to drone operations, whether they go into the exercise with a safety-first mindset.
The worst-case scenario is akin to the story of a man named Paul Skinner, who knocked out a woman at a parade when his UAV bumped into a building, lost control and then fell on her head. For that incident, Mr. Skinner was both fined and spent 30 days in jail.
He was lucky, as the accident could have been much worse. A more recent case in Las Vegas involved an errant drone that struck a woman in the face and eye, permanently damaging her vision. That case was settled for somewhere north of $250,000.
The last risk—the one everyone fears—has to do with a drone impacting and causing a manned aircraft to crash. These are not abstractions, and for companies operating in the solar sector, this is even more true.
Utility or substation scale solar power plants are often found in rural areas. A quick glance at California’s Central Valley on Google Earth shows hundreds of power plants scattered up and down the valley. Because agricultural producers make extensive use of both helicopters and crop dusters, drone operators often work in the same airspace. Close encounters—sometimes dangerously close—do happen. We have borne witness to more than one operator having close encounters with fast moving crop dusters and helicopters.
As a matter of practice, PXYZ files NOTAMs (Notice To Airman) for aerial operations, even when not required. It’s not difficult, and it provides another layer of accountability in our safety protocols. Making calls to local crop dusters in the area of operation prior to scheduled flights is also good practice.
Bottom line is when you send a drone on a programmed mission, it can create a lackadaisical attitude with more junior operators as the drone runs through a pre-programmed operation. When the unexpected happens, their attention is not focused on the immediate environment and they simply don’t react quickly enough.
To date, there has been only one documented incident in which a manned aircraft crashed due to a drone (fortunately without injury to the parties on board). As the number of inexperienced drone operators increases and flight execution software improves, near misses will increase and it’s virtually inevitable that fatalities will happen.
So the question any business needs to ask themselves is this:
“Is the risk worth the rewards, and is there a way to minimize risks while still getting the accurate data I need?”
Not to spoil the end, but yes. Let’s take a look.
At Precision XYZ, we work with a fleet of well-qualified flight operators with strong operational safety records in order to mitigate risk and deliver the data you need, when you need it. Every flight includes a risk assessment and a flight plan built through our Flight Operations team.
Our structured program for pilot certification helps mitigate risk by viewing the operator through a safety lense first. We rank order our pilot operators from L-1 to L-5 based on their experience with different types of equipment, environments, and flight operations.
An L-1 pilot, for example, knows how to fly a multirotor and has a minimum of 20 hours of flight time. This pilot knows the basics of how the airspace works and can conduct simple data collection, shooting static images of homes, structures or fields in crowd-free settings.
Conversely, an L-5 pilot is an instrument-rated professional, has worked with a wide variety of airframes, has experience with FAA approved BVLOS flight operations, and has hundreds of hours of flight time.
Are we saying that we operate totally risk-free? No—and any drone service provider who tells you otherwise is being dishonest, because there’s inherent risk anytime an aircraft leaves the ground.
The difference is that professional drone operators know these risks, and know how to mitigate them.
Bottom line? If drone operations are not core to your business, why take on risk that you can’t calculate? Let us handle it—it’s literally all we do.
Get in touch and find out how to really get your solar project off the ground.