sUAS pilot flying drone.

By Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS

While presenting at a conference some years ago, I brought up some of the memes associated with drone pilots. We had a good time laughing at how certain people view the profession–police assume we are spying on people, pilots assume we are flying guided missiles aimed at them, our parents just assume we never grew out of playing with toys. However, I wrapped it up by saying that in reality, sUAS pilots are probably out in the middle of nowhere either sweating or freezing profusely.

There is a great deal of truth associated with the last one. Realistically, UAS operations are generally selected to operate in environments that would be dull, dirty, or dangerous to manned aircraft—which can mean extremely isolated or inhospitable areas. The responsible Remote Pilot In Command (RPIC) does need to pay close attention to items that could provide hazards to their crew members while conducting flight operations.

Identify Possible Environmental Hazards to sUAS Pilots and Crew

Some of these categories may include weather and distractions, and each deserves the proper consideration. In addition, the safe sUAS pilot will be choosing a takeoff, landing, and transit area that is away from potential obstacles such as trees or buildings.

Those same obstacles provide helpful items for crew members, such as shade from the sun, so our decision to mitigate one hazard (striking an obstacle) can create another (crew exposure to heat).

Prepare sUAS Crew for Adverse Weather Conditions

In previous articles, we have examined weather in terms of both regulatory compliance to minimums, as well as potential safety effects on the aircraft itself. Naturally conditions such as low clouds or high winds would give the RPIC reason to pause and reconsider flying during that time. However, we also need to consider the potential impacts on crew members due to weather.

During hot conditions, direct sunlight may quickly raise the internal temperatures of personnel that are in the open, which also raises the possibilities of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. In addition, direct sunlight can lead to first or second degree burns if the exposure continues for any significant length of time. Mission capability may also be reduced during times of bright sunlight, with personnel experiencing eye strain or headaches from trying to pick out a small white or black UAS against a clear sky.

Similarly, cold weather environments can be extremely detrimental to safe operations as well. Low temperatures, combined with high winds or humidity, can make it extremely difficult for personnel to keep warm while they are in the field. Both heat exhaustion and hypothermia can lead to problems with fatigue, slurred speech, and reductions in their abilities for sound decision making—posing a hazard to themselves as well as the overall mission.

As such, it is crucial that the RPIC ensures their crew members have the right equipment for the weather conditions that are expected during the operation. For hot days, personnel should have sunscreen, sunglasses, some kind of hat with a wide brim, and plenty of water.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends at least one cup of water for each 15-20 minutes outside, and more never hurts. Also, consider the possibility of some kind of cover, either a folding awning or cycling personnel in and out of air conditioned environments depending on what kind of area is available.
For colder weather, appropriate jackets or coats with gloves and hats should be on the Minimum Equipment List. Try to site personnel in a way that they are not heavily exposed to wind, and of course, avoid flying in precipitation whenever possible. Above all, monitor your crew for any signs of exhaustion or reduction in abilities; in both hot or cold environments, these may be the early warning signals of a more serious problem, and get them to a more hospitable temperature as soon as possible.


Be Aware of Distractions to Drone Pilots

Distractions are another item that should also be considered by the RPIC. With professional-grade sUAS, there are a number of specific functions that should be checked prior to each flight. This can be difficult when the weather is unpleasant, or a group of people walk up to ask questions, or you have to operate in a place that has constant distractions (such as next to a busy road). For that reason, checklists are extremely important, and should be followed by personnel during each launch and recovery operation. Ideally, these should either come from the sUAS manufacturer, or a Chief Pilot if you are a member of an organization.

Similarly, these same environmental items (loud noises, proximity to traffic, external personnel) can reduce mission capabilities by distracting RPICs, PMTCs, and VOs from more critical tasks at hand. If someone takes the time to explain how the GPS on board the aircraft works, they may miss the cropdusting aircraft entering the area from the south. To that end, it is important to remain focused on the most important tasks at hand. Be good neighbors, but also explain to people that you may have to go over things once the aircraft lands.

For areas with loud noise or potentially dangerous traffic, make sure that there is a thorough brief of all crew members regarding safety, staging areas, takeoff and landing areas, and communications procedures. If necessary, move your crew site to some place more conducive for safe operations.

Make Sure Environmental Issues Will Not Adversely Impact Your  Crew

We spend a lot of time focused on how to operate the aircraft safely, and that is something that should absolutely be considered. However, we also need to be taking care of our crew members, and making sure they are not adversely impacted by environmental issues during flight operations. Establishing priorities for risk mitigation, making sure your people have the right equipment, and reducing distractions will all go a long way toward ensuring you have a safe operation for all involved.

Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS
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