By Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS
After closely examining the Airspace and Weather at your proposed flying area, it is wise for the safe sUAS pilot to examine the immediate Environment in which you will be operating. Flight Planning can take several different forms, including choosing your takeoff/landing area, planning for potential obstacles, maintaining separation from people in the area, and determining appropriate locations for emergency landings. Each of these items should be considered prior to launch since they can have significant impacts on both the safety and success of your flight.
1. Decide on Takeoff and Landing Areas
Choosing your takeoff and landing area is one of the most crucial items that an sUAS pilot will decide before launch. The takeoff and landing area will determine flight time, effects of weather, potential separation from people and other aircraft, and even the ability of the aircraft to reach the mission site.
The selection of the launch point deserves time and detailed review during the preflight planning process. Fortunately, excellent resources (including Google Earth and satellite views in AirMap) can be used to help determine potential launch sites during the early planning phases.
If necessary, visit the area you want to fly and physically walk through the location to ensure that the flight will remain within the limitations of Part 107.
Ask yourself: “Can I maintain Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) between the launch point and my objective?”
If not, adjustments to your launch point or position of your Visual Observers will need to be made on the front end.
It is also critical to plan for the return leg of your flight. The aircraft will have a lower available flight time after completing the mission, and safe approaches to the landing area will be a high priority.
2. Plan for Potential Obstacles
One of the major items to consider during that initial selection of your launch and mission areas is potential obstacles. We have all seen footage online of drones crashing into trees, power lines, towers, buildings, cars, and more—and we do not want to repeat their same mistakes.
Note the height and type of obstacles that are within your flying area by visiting it, or looking at previously captured data from Google.
As previously mentioned, we have to maintain Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) with the aircraft at all times, but there are other potential hazards associated with obstacles that should be considered.
Note that wind currents will be more pronounced on the leeward (or back side) of an obstacle, producing greater turbulence while passing through those areas. In addition, certain types of areas may interfere with your 5.8 GHz vision signal, or even worse, your 2.4 GHz control signal.
Plan for obstacles in your flying area and maintain separation from them, lest you wind up in an investigation — or a crash compilation on YouTube.
3. Will People or Cars be in Your Flight Path?
Another specific requirement under Part 107 is that sUAS are not operated over any persons not involved in the operation.
In the event of a failure, the aircraft should not strike anyone or cause injuries. For that reason, it is extremely important for sUAS pilots to ensure proper distance from crowds of curiosity seekers or even vehicular traffic.
Note that Part 107 does not establish an effective distance from crowds, so that distance is something that will be up to the judgment of the Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) or drone pilot. However, any personnel in the area will either need to be clear of the flying area or under a safe cover (such as an awning) that would protect them in the event of a catastrophic failure.
I always recommend that RPICs be goodwill ambassadors for the profession– explain to bystanders that they are free to watch if they remain outside our boundary lines and do not interfere with the flight crew members.
Generally this guidance is well received, but sometimes it may be necessary to hold launches until that proper safe distance has been created.
4. Do You Have an Emergency Landing Plan?
Lastly, nobody wants to consider the possibility of their sUAS being involved in a crash, but the wise pilot will give it some thought. When planning your flying area, determine some potential areas where you could land the aircraft in the event of an in-flight emergency.
These emergency landing areas need to be away from people or objects that would be damaged if the aircraft cannot be recovered safely. Ideally, these locations would be not only near to the area where you plan to operate but also at a safe distance from anyone that could be injured.
Multirotors with more than four motors, or fixed wing aircraft, may be able to fly to a safe area, but quadcopters will most likely impact very near the site where the emergency occurred. For that reason, it is even more important to plan for distance from obstacles and separation from people in order to prevent any further losses in the event of a crash.
Remember that the more information you have compiled on the front end will lead to fewer issues to consider upon launching your aircraft. Take the time to become familiar with your planned flight location, launch and recovery points, obstacles that can interfere with your flight, distance from bystanders, and locations to use in the worst possible scenario.
Thorough preflight planning will lead to a successful mission and provide the best possible results for your customer.
By making yourself aware of potential hazards in the area, you can determine the specific mitigation methods that you need to consider to ensure safe flight, which will be discussed in the next article.
As always—fly safe!