There are any number of potential areas that a Remote Pilot In Command (RPIC) or drone pilot needs to examine before conducting a professional sUAS flight, and all these areas can have serious impacts on both safety and mission effectiveness.
The Importance of Preflight Inspections
Several years ago, I was conducting a demonstration flight for a group of customers on my highly-customized Blade 350QX at the local hobby store. I had added a series of extra equipment to the aircraft—including a First Person View (FPV) camera, video transmitter, and an On Screen Display (OSD) that provided real time navigation, altitude, and battery info to my FatShark goggles.
In the middle of my demo, I added power to climb and get a better view of the empty parking lot when suddenly, there was a quiet but sinister *POP*, with the aircraft tumbling into the asphalt from about 150’ Above Ground Level (AGL).
When I scraped the parts back together, I found that the plastic rotors had developed fatigue marks around the mounting screws, and one of the rotors finally disintegrated while in flight.
Fortunately, the only casualty was my aircraft.
Where did the flight go wrong?
Admittedly in my hurry to set up a flight demonstration for some potential customers, I skipped the process of conducting a thorough preflight inspection of the aircraft.
Ideally, you should be able to find a preflight checklist in your UAS Flight Manual provided by the manufacturer.
Demonstration Inspection Checklist
However, the following is a demonstration inspection checklist that you can modify or use in the event one is not provided with your aircraft:
Before Reaching Flight Area
- Confirm that all software settings are correctly updated
- Check fuel or battery levels for the aircraft
- Verify all control and vision systems have sufficient battery power
- Registration markings
- Required documents (Remote Pilot Certificate, Registration Certificate, airspace waivers as appropriate)
When Setting Up in the Field
- Note any potential obstructions that could affect the UAS
- Visual condition inspection of all components
- All onboard equipment securely attached (remember weight and balance shifts and their effects)
- Airframe structure, flight control surfaces, and linkages
- Includes servos and attachment points, as needed
- Flight control movement, security, and proper orientation
- Propulsion systems (specifically motors, propellers, rotors, etc.)
- Avionics, such as the control system, communications/navigation equipment, and antennas
- Check UAS compass calibration (usually automatic)
- Display panels or visual systems
- Verify control links to the UAS (control station, vision systems, etc.)
- Flight termination systems, if installed
- Verify GPS lock for the Unmanned Aircraft and the Control Station
After Engine Startup
- Start the UAS to look and listen for any potential problems
- Conduct a brief test check at low altitude to verify system performance before proceeding downrange
Each individual make and model sUAS will require specific steps for a safe flight, so be sure to familiarize yourself with both the manufacturer instructions and also best practices followed by other operators.
Also, if you are flying as part of an organization, the Director or Chief Pilot should establish a standardized inspection checklist to follow ensuring that all members are conducting the same level of safety checks.
Remember: our intent is to find a problem either on the ground or at low altitude before something develops over the mission area.