Do we need drone regulations?
Why should a government agency care if you crash a drone into a bridge, fly into a wind turbine or crash land on a solar panel? If you have passed your Part 107 in the USA, or secured a UK CAA Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) and have adequate insurance cover, surely that’s enough? Who has got time for centralised regulation, bureaucracy and overzealous local government personnel?
In the drone market today, most service businesses are solopreneurs and small fewer than 50 person businesses. We don’t want to waste time and effort on activities that provide zero return. However, we do want industry-led standards and guidance, enabling safe operations within each industry sector (e.g. Telecoms or utilities).
As the drone industry has matured, the industry sectors themselves have looked to the companies providing the professional services to set the standards. This is a much healthier and more beneficial route. It means that the well respected and safe operators can shape and drive the requirements based on their experience alongside their industry peers.
Yet, when a company finds itself in this position it can take two distinct approaches. A company could aim to make the standard so onerous that no one else can compete in the market; this short-term view can only provide protection for a limited period and is harmful to the wider community in terms of the adoption of the technology. The second approach focusses on safe and fast adoption through transparent guidance. Operators and end users collaborate to agree on a standard within each industry sector clearly setting out its own standards and guidance for working, to benefit the entire community.
The safety requirements for surveying a mine are different from working offshore on an oil platform, and this is reflected in the difference in the respective risk assessments, method statements and operating procedures. Overall, the more companies working safely and proving the return on investment for drones within each industry sector helps to speed adoption and awareness. This is good for all businesses involved.
What have we done to help the wider industry?
Sky-Futures has worked to establish: industry guidance; internal audited best practice for a drone company; verification for our inspection methodology and outputs; sector-specific management and guidance; and training and certification. By doing this we have set out a best practice blueprint for companies who want to utilise drones for commercial industrial inspection.
The first guidance notes published by Lloyd’s Register were based on Sky-Futures best practice. We provided an inspection of a vessel in Singapore following significant planning with Lloyd’s Register and other industrial end users. The results were shared freely with all parties and the benefits discussed and challenged openly. From our side, Steve Moir our Engineering Manager worked to establish the KPIs for success and oversaw the trials. The goal was to further legitimise and speed up the adoption of drones in the O&G and maritime sectors. Lloyd’s Register published the guidance notes for interested parties to download from their website so that anyone could access this information from a highly respected and trusted source.
Lloyd’s Register has an active research programme for robotics and unmanned systems… One area we are focusing on is the safety aspect of this new technology, and how we integrate it with existing safety processes and ensure we use it to enhance safety and to limit the introduction of new risks.
We subsequently worked with SGS after passing their audit standard to further refine industry best practice. Working with Tracy Lamb, an aviation professional within SGS, we collaborated to ensure that our best practice could be adopted by industry. This does two things – firstly, it helps end customers choose between providers of industrial inspection services based on internal processes and safety meaning that the purchasing department can benchmark the service companies against each other in a more informed way. Secondly, it enables drone inspection businesses to go through an audit with SGS to help to get up to the same level and enhance their own processes and standards thereby increasing safety and professionalism.
Sky-Futures is an operator that has differentiated itself in this field through its dedication to achieving robust safety and risk standards and adopting global best practice.
Verified drone inspection standard
A significant goal was to get the drone inspection service methodology and outputs officially accepted by the industry. Working with the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), we helped create an ‘External Specialist Rating’ in the USA that accepts drone inspection as a methodology. Inspection companies using drones for maritime inspections now have a recognised path to follow to achieve ABS approval, and end clients can purchase services with confidence knowing that the inspection technique is approved.
Sector specific management standards and guidance
Finally, we worked on industry guidance with Oil and Gas UK, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell and service providers. The working group produced and agreed on the ‘Operational management standards and guidelines‘, which is published by Oil and Gas UK.
The intention is to encourage offshore operators planning on using this emerging technology to think about the whole operating and safety system offshore and not just the air vehicle.
Training and certification
However, being a new technology there are companies that want to provide industrial inspection and other drone data commercially, but have no experience. We leverage our 6 years of commercial experience and knowledge of the industry standards and guidance to offer world-leading drone training and certification for industrial inspection and emergency services in both the USA and UK.
Drones don’t need regulations. Instead, the industry needs to set standards and guidelines. We are at the beginning of the drone market, so the more professional companies that are involved driving standards and educating the end users, the faster the adoption.