May 1st is International Drone Day – a day to celebrate all-things drones and the growing community of innovators who come together to unlock new and more powerful use cases every day. Drone use continues to soar across industries ranging from construction and utility to media and more, with some estimating the drone services market size will exceed $63 billion by 2025. While drones transform the way today’s enterprises are saving money and improving safety and efficiency, they also present risk and uncertainty that can cause some members of the public to eye any drone flight with suspicion.
Anyone who flies a drone needs to follow the rules. The consequences for failing to do so can be strict, especially for commercial drone pilots. Breaking drone laws can not only land you with huge fines and even jail time — it can also result in your entire drone program being shut down.
But even if you’re following every regulation, how do you overcome skepticism or concern from members of the public or even law enforcement? You must prove that you’re a professional drone pilot who will help, not harm, the community. This starts with exploring four best practices for maximizing positive public perception of your organization’s drone program.
Follow federal drone regulations and local drone laws
The first step to avoiding a run-in with the public or law enforcement is to always follow the rules — and be able to prove your compliance.
This means you must understand the laws and regulations that apply. There are several layers to drone laws. In the U.S., it starts with Part 107, the federal rules for commercial drone operations. Part 107 requires any drone pilot flying for business to get a remote pilot certificate and abide by airspace and operational limitations.
It’s important to note that local drone laws can also apply at the state, county, and city level. For example, some homeowner’s associations have special rules against operating in or around neighborhoods. Today, the Virginia Department of Aviation (DOAV) is offering the Virginia Flight Information Exchange (VA-FIX), which is a first-of-its-kind platform for state and local government agencies to publish and share drone advisory information with each other, drone service suppliers, unmanned system operators and the public to promote transparency and public safety.
Choose a drone management platform that’s designed to meet regulations
Choose a drone software that will help you comply with the rules. Your organization will want to look for the following features and capabilities:
- Drone airspace map that simplifies data at the federal level
- Flight planning tools that help set boundaries for pilot missions, in addition to avoiding hazards. This will also help prevent flying in areas that are protected by local regulations, such as parks.
- Flight logging insights that show exactly where and when each flight takes place, including flight paths and altitude. Some platforms available today offer the opportunity to easily filter by date, location, pilot, and more. This means a user can produce flight logs to demonstrate exact flight path and regulatory compliance, particularly following an inquiry or complaint about the drone operation.
This last bullet proved especially helpful for West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT), who began looking into launching a drone program in 2017, moving forward with a “Build, Scale, Innovate” model. During one flight, WVDOT Statewide Survey Unit Leader Jesse Bennett was operating a drone in an area near a small airport. A member of the public mistakenly assumed that Jesse was flying without authorization and reported the drone to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA launched an investigation and contacted Jesse. Fortunately, the investigation was resolved within 24 hours because he was able to send the investigator his flight logs and Notice of Authorization for the airspace within minutes of being contacted. This is key for demonstrating not only a pilot’s authorization to fly, but more importantly, an ability to fly responsibly.
Stay vigilant during pre-flight and in-flight operations
Beyond the letter of the law, it’s wise to follow some best practices for drone operations that demonstrate professionalism to the public. For example, you may find yourself flying in an area where no airspace authorization is required. In such situations, it’s wise to connect with others in the area to confirm their comfort with your operation. This proactiveness will help put people at ease.
Additionally, it’s possible you will walk away from your conversation with new information that’s essential to your operation, such as an established written agreement confirming where drones can and cannot fly in your flight territory. There’s a chance you’ll be able to fly with reduced risk of legal consequences, but calling ahead has the potential to save you from uncomfortable encounters and conversations with law enforcement. Calling before takeoff and maintaining such pre-flight vigilance is also a great way to present yourself as a reliable drone pilot who prioritizes safety for the community.
Put experience and professionalism on display
It should be clear to others that you know what you’re doing. Even if you are stopped, it can go a long way toward showing that you’re a responsible pilot with the licenses and authorizations required to fly in the area if you practice the following:
- Wearing a high-visibility vest and making sure everyone in the area can see that you’re the drone pilot
- Using cones to mark out your take-off and landing areas
- Having your paperwork on hand — at least digitally, and even better, physically. This includes your drone pilot certification, airspace authorization, drone registration, and any other relevant documents.
- Performing pre-flight checklists or risk assessments with every flight
- Anticipating that you could be confronted to avoid being caught off-guard
- Navigating the drone to a safe landing before trying to resolve an issue if confrontation arises
Commercial drones are transformative, changing the way we see the world, work and communicate every day. As a drone pilot myself, I understand how essential offering assurance and generating positive public perception of your drone operations will be for ongoing innovation. Following drone regulations and exploring today’s tools and software platforms that can aid in this effort, along with demonstrating professionalism and attentive pre-flight and in-flight operations, are simple steps your company can take to help set the drone ecosystem up for a brighter and more powerful future.
Mariah Scott is President of Skyward, A Verizon company. As a founder, president, or COO, Mariah has spearheaded the introduction of new products that transform the way a business operates. She understands the power of technology to solve problems for people, and the creative process of working with a team to take an idea from concept to reality. As President of Skyward, she helps enterprises realize the enormous potential of drones. Starting with a small team and a big vision—enabling a global aerial robotics network—she’s built the company through startup to a successful acquisition by Verizon. Skyward software now manages drone programs for Fortune 500 companies as well as drone flight service startups and leads the industry in integrating automated access to airspace. Skyward is active in developing the global standards needed to enable this technology.