When companies need an important project completed with drone assistance, how can they differentiate between drone operators as all claim to be the best? As the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) business has expanded exponentially in recent years, and the number of certificated remote pilots has grown even more since 2016, quality, proficiency, and pilot currency assurances to industry have struggled to keep a similar pace.
As the need for drone use grows in myriad categories, from agriculture to construction to inspections, to archeological excavations, businesses need to know that the training and capacity of the pilots they hire meets expectations and won’t put the company at risk.
Without uniform standards to go by, businesses “don’t always know what the level of competency they are getting” with a given pilot, says Joseph Cerreta, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “They may have just hired someone who may or may not be certified. Do they want to take the risk and take on the liabilities if something goes wrong?”
Embry-Riddle and other educational communities and drone industry leaders are advocating for proven standards across the board to ensure business expectations are met.
“Having standards that are taught from the start makes for conformity in the industry,” says Dr. Will Austin, president of Warren Community College in Washington, New Jersey, and the college’s chief pilot. “Let’s face it. Having standards is vitally important from both the pilots’ standpoint and for the company that hires them.”
To meet the challenge, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), based in Virginia, launched its Trusted Operator Program™ (TOP) in 2018. The initiative aims to certify pilots through a three-tier program that’s only goal is a safer national airspace system.
“You do see some sloppiness out there (from some who claim to be experts),” says David Thirtyacre, chair of the Department of Flight at Embry-Riddle. Uniform standards will allow for more “pilots with a proficient skill set” to take to the air.
TOP is a professional unmanned systems community initiative aimed at supporting industry-accepted remote pilot standards and protocols. Individuals who become TOP-certified have demonstrated a strong commitment to the safe operation of UAS, or drones, and understand the various protocols that must be followed before, during, and after flight.
To spread this commitment, AUVSI has so far partnered with a small but elite group of colleges deemed TOP Providers, of which Warren and Embry Riddle, for example, are part.
Peter Miller, an unmanned systems specialist at Warren where the FAA recently made the college a part of its Unmanned Aircraft Systems-Collegiate Training Initiative (UAS-CTI), emphasizes that in ensuring continuity, “higher standards” are crucial when it comes to “instilling this information to students.”
“A lot of people buy some equipment and think, ‘OK, let’s go,’” sums up Thirtyacre. But is that all it takes? “Do you want someone working for you who might not know what to do when the conditions are not ideal? What do they do when it rains, or it’s night out? Or when there’s a sudden gust of wind, or fog settles in, or any number of scenarios that only a certified pilot can react to, not the least of which might be a failure of one of the mission critical systems or subsystems of the unmanned robotic vehicle.
“You want competency, safety and universal standards,” says Austin. “You want to feel confident that the pilot you hire can complete your work safely and without incident, especially an incident that is referred to your insurance company or lawyer. The only way to do that is to train them on the same acceptable standards as everyone else in the industry.”
Warren’s rationale for becoming the latest certified training provider according to. Austin, “is to create the safest pilots for the industry, realizing that as automation increases, the need for pilot training is not diminished as some argue. Rather the need for competency, currency, and proficiency increases to counter the human tendency to become over reliant on technology, as it does not take a deep dive into aviation history to realize the fallibility of that perspective.”