Threat and Error Management: Diary of a Drone Pilot

From the diary of a drone pilot..

Despite having highly a sophisticated platform to carry my cameras, the sensors I use, and even having “auto pilot”, GPS, “Auto Return To Home”, and even automated takeoff and landings…as the PIC (Pilot in Command) of any flying machine I have great responsibility, and I choose to take this responsibility very seriously every time I take off.

Firstly, my responsibility is to the public, who are not involved in the operation and most of the time are not even aware of us, or our flying machine, then to myself, my close crew and my co-workers, and finally to the extremely expensive equipment I fly and use.

Drone over crowds - threats and error

My approach to safety starts every morning, long before I get to work, when I get up and get ready to start my day, I prepare myself for the challenges I will encounter during shoots. Firstly I like to do a bit of a “self-check”, if you will, I ensure I have had good rest and slept well, I have had a good healthy and energetic meal and that I am physically and emotionally ready to take on the responsibility.

Coming from full size flying, I see no difference between having 7 passenger behind me when I cross the bass strait enroute to Tasmania or flying a UAV in a quite country town. The truth is, that in most cases flying the UAV I often operate in much more crowded areas where tens and sometimes hundreds of people may be affected from my decisions and operation standards so I take great care and a positive approach to safety.

In our work we often categorise the type of risks we encounter into three categories, that comes from the TEM model (Threat and Error Management). CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority define TEM as:

“TEM model accepts that it is unavoidable that pilots, as human beings, will make errors. Errors are defined as flight crew actions or inactions that: 

  • Lead to a deviation from crew or organisational intentions or expectations
  • Reduce safety margins; and
  • Increase the probability of adverse operational events on the ground and during flight.

They can be classified as handling errors, procedural errors or communications errors. External and internal threats may lead to errors on the part of the pilot.

The TEM model then breaks it down to three main areas we deal with in our operation:

  • Internal Threats
  • External Threats/Environmental
  • The Human errors

It all sounds very complicated, and I am sure you are scratching your head asking… “how flying that toy around can be so dangerous??”

So let’s break it down, I will give you a real world example of the the TEM model at work!!

Let’s start with Internal threats and errors:

Internal really means the relation of our personal flying part and the results and actions of the UAV in the air, or ground, despite standing on “terra firma” and flying the UAV using a remote control or a computer, our direct actions affect our flight performance, like our aircraft speed and altitude. Example of a threat in that area would be “while I wanted the UAV to fly slow, to get a smooth shot of a car driving in a dense forest I had mistakenly had inputs that led it to go too fast towards approaching trees, and dangerously close to an incident/crash” (an expensive bill to pay)

crashed drone

External Threats are much more common, and dealt with on every flight, firstly our airspace and area of operation. So many times I fly around power lines, buildings, antennas and obstacles that for most will be a cause for concern, and so is the case for me also, which brings us to the reason of identifying those risks, and finding ways to mitigate them in order to have a safe and productive operation way before we even think about taking off and starting our job.

The environmental side of things, is of course mother nature in all its glory….wind, turbulence, rain and low visibility that affect us, at all times of flying.

Our relatively small and light weight Drones are much more susceptible to the environment, so operation is limited to low wind conditions along with maintaining visual line of sight at all times, it also means that myself, or the crew involved in the operation will often check the wind using a wind meter and forecast provided from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

 CASA safe flying

Lastly, the human errors, Probably the biggest single factor of the safety and successfulness of my job. It may be a highly complicated marine chase at sea for a TV show, or a simple roof inspection in an industrial area, it all comes to understanding the risk, most of the time it has nothing to do with the actual skill of flying, but mostly the environment of which I am working in, that affects me the most. A good example that I often encounter is client pressure to keep flying “just few more minutes to get the right shot” while the battery level of our drone goes down to our reserves (35%), or the request to fly closer then the allowed 30 meters of separation by CASA. Pressure from clients I find, is a major part of the human errors that might occur.

So to deal in a safe and simply manner with the risk involved, I use a simple flow chart, that is so embedded in me that I find myself using it outside of work hours, and it goes as follows:

  1. Prepare in advance (6 P’s) Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
  2. Look for potential threats and environment factors that may affect my work.
  3. Find ways to minimise the risks I have indetified
  4. Implement the risk mitigation for a safe outcome, and soft landings!

Remember, A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations that would require the use of his superior skills.

If you are interested in becoming a drone pilot or simply want some further information on how to get started in Aerial photography have a read through our blog – Introduction to Aerial Photography

Happy and Safe Flying

Swarm UAV

We are Australian specialists in drone aerial photography and aerial cinematography. CASA Certified Pilots. We are a business with our heads in the clouds, and our feet firmly on the ground.

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