Podcast: The Twilight Zone of Drone Safety

August 22, 2018

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This presentation explores the edges of drone safety and the current regulatory climate to help pilots become more cognizant of the safety and compliance challenges.

Eric Delucien manages UAS flights both on and off campus at UC San Diego. He assists researchers, staff, students, and non-affiliates with conducting safe, legal, and insured flights. Under the Department of Environment, Health & Safety, he also manages and pilots a fleet of drones that are used for emergency response, fire and general safety inspections, environmental investigations, and campus trainings. Eric often provides expertise on regulatory and operational matters for the greater San Diego community by partnering with other campuses, businesses, and the local agencies.


You can also download or listen via iTunes.


Barbaree Duke: Eric Delucien he's at UC San Diego, and he will be talking to us about the twilight zone of drone safety today. Welcome, glad to have you with us today.

Eric Delucien: I want to say thank you again for the opportunity as well as I want to commend you on what a great lineup of presenters you have so far, and hopefully I can close it out with something meaningful for all the attendees. 

I work at UC San Diego as the UAS Program Manager.  I'm a pilot for our department and  work in environment, health and safety.  What I basically do is try to make sure that all the researchers, staff, faculty, and everybody flies safely and legally on and off campus.

So, what we're going to do today is take a look at drone safety, regulations and risk management and jump around from there.  

So, as Abby touched upon, definitely a lot of growth occurring, and it's projected in 2022 that they're just going to be a lot of Drones, commercial and recreational in the skies.  So that's going to make flying more challenging for everyone, so the skies are going to be buzzy.  That's going to create some issues, and possibly with incidents occurring with manned aircraft and so forth. 

We'll talk about the FAA and kind of focus on the good, the bad and the ugly.  The positive things, Abby touched on this as well, is that there’s a lot of need and want for the FAA to incorporate Drones into the national airspace.  And when I say Drones, I mean unmanned aircraft, UAVs and so forth, in case I go back and forth with that. The low altitude authorization notification capability just came online and in the southwest, here in California, it's going to be going forward June 21st and that's going to be great, because now you can fly in controlled airspace easier and could get automatic approval to fly.  

The UAS integration pilot program is official.  They have greenlighted ten groups to go ahead and start doing some innovative work with drones and UC San Diego and the City of San Diego was actually chosen, and supposedly our medical center is going to be moving medical tissues.  I don't know what they're going to be doing with the Drones.  I need to check in on that.  

The new portal of the FAA has is easier to make request for waivers and authorizations and they've launched the facility maps if you haven't seen that, you can figure out where you can fly and the altitudes at within different controlled airspace as well.  So, it's making it a lot easier, streamlining it and like I mentioned the FAA is definitely evolving.  

On the bad side of things there's definitely more of a push from the recent FAA symposium I attended in Baltimore.  The FAA is scared, and they want to definitely address the security issues with drones.  And that's becoming the dominant topic where the previous symposium was more focused on disruption innovation and it was very happy and everybody was excited, and this last one was a little more, I don't want to say draconian, but it was a little darker.  The one thing they're focusing on right now, this is sort of the primary objective, is they want to be able to track drones in the airspace and they want remote ID tracking, but there's been a lack of consensus on how they're going to do that. The slow rulemaking with drones is difficult, the opacity, how opaque it is, with who gets what waiver and authorization and who doesn't.  Sometimes they're not always accountable to congress to what they say. You have to do this, and they drag their feet so that's some of the downside, but I think the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.  

One thing that is challenging as well, and this is something that came up recently, is that as you can see here on this sectional chart that you can now fly in the magenta lines on the surface airspace, extension airspace.  The classed DR airspace is the circle here in the blue and now you don't need authorization to fly in this surface class airspace.  This memorandum was sent out to a friend to a friend to a friend and it landed in my email box and there were some bickering going on with some researchers about this and they said on January 10, 2018, you don't need authorization to fly.  And this sort of this trickling information from the FAA, this rhythm of updates it's challenging sometimes because there's a lot of confusion and what’s frustrating with this is that a lot of pilots just say well I'm just going to go on my own and I am going to do whatever. I'm not going to follow the rules.  So hopefully this becomes less and less, and we move forward and evolve.  

One thing that is fascinating me from a safety side, a standpoint is that there's so much data out there that we all have, not just as organizations, but people.  We all have data that can help us be safer and help us become better pilots.  One of the VPs from the FAA symposium from Intel mentioned, he said, “Data is the new oil.”  He was the VP that oversaw the swarm technology from the Olympics.  I just really thought that was a very solid point that he brought up.  And as we try to extract and get access this data, it becomes more and more challenging.  

I highly recommend and I'm sharing this presentation for you is that you check out Dr. Juan Alonso, a Stanford Professor, his testimony about how if we can get access to this data and its quality data then we can definitely eliminate unsafe outcomes because that should be the primary objective of most of our flying is that we don't hit anyone else especially manned aircraft.  And if we can get data, reliable data, good data then we can open the airspace and have Drones have the capacity to do more with less and less issues.  

Another one, this was from the recent crash.  The Allegiant Air episode is that the FAA is dedicated to a more transparent exchange of information and data between the industry.  So, I think we're going to see more of this data available especially with the drone integration pilot program. 

So, here's a question for everybody in the audience.  I just want to see if this is something to consider.  Can all UAS incidents and accidents be prevented?  Yes, I'm definitely setting you up here.  Yeah, yes, all incidents and accidents in safety can be pretty much prevented.  

This came up in the early part of my safety career.  I was in a workshop and this old man who had been in safety for 40 years retired.  He was presenting, and he said yes, and I kept throwing him answers and telling him, what if an asteroid came and hit earth, what if aliens and he said “Yes. You can come up with a plan. “ So consider that and in in when you're when you're flying.

 I think this leads us to an understanding in risk management, the chain of safety. This could go across the board not just in drone flying but anything we do.  Typically, before incidents or accidents happen you have unsafe conditions, or you have unsafe acts.  This is where it all starts. For example, if you're flying a Drone and while you're flying your propeller starts to crack. This is before you did your inspection and after you did your inspection, it starts to crack so this can create some failure in your flight or you're flying over people or you're flying in an unsafe manner this is more behavior thing.  What usually occurs in this chain is that a near miss will occur.  So, you almost hit a child on a bike or whatever the case maybe.  If you're lucky you have a near miss situation, if you're lucky.  And if you're very unfortunate, it goes straight to an incident or an accident.  

And this actually comes from Heinrich’s Law.  If you're familiar with it, take it as it is. It's a rough approximation here.  There's always some dispute argument about this pyramid, but according to Heinrich, 300 near misses will equal one serious incident. Twenty-nine minor incidents will equal one serious incident. And if you consider how many near misses were having right now with a manned aircraft, I'm not sure if we're close to 300 or not, but we're definitely moving up there every day in the news. We see something new about a helicopter or an airplane encounter a Drone.  

So, how could we avoid incidents and accidents? This is somewhat of a complex question. But for me personally, as a pilot, just to sort of simply and without getting into it too deeply, I really believe there needs to be checklists for every part of the process of our operations.  Flight operations have some sort of a cross check as well in this in your operations.  

So, for me when I go out fly, I do a pre-flight checklist.  I have a little checklist and check off and I go through all the steps and then when I get to the site, I do another checklist.  I usually before I even fly, I take the time to look around the airspace and if I sit there for about 10 minutes,  I always, and this is in San Diego which is really busy.  A helicopter will come by flying really low and I'm always grateful that I did that because now I know the path and the possibilities of dangers that exist.  

So, I think checklist are essential to the safety and also post flight checklists as well. And working with other people and sharing your flight plans, having a visual observer, having someone on the site with you when you're flying is also crucial because someone might see something that you don't see.  And often very experienced pilots can sometimes be very dangerous because you're such in a habit of flying you get that sort of that myopic like I know everything.   I've been through everything and you might not see something that somebody who is a beginner will see as a possible risk or hazard.  

I also want to point out field operational plans here at the University.  People go out to a site for off the field that they need to submit one.  One thing from the symposium that was really interesting was the emergency responders were talking about hurricane Harvey and Irma and how they would set up their ground controls and some of the issues they had.  So, they did a field operational plan and there were things that they couldn't even account for.  For example, the flooding created an issue with fire ants.  Any dry area that existed for the pilots in certain spots was infested with fire ants, so they couldn't even really set up a ground control safely.  There were also dangerous wildlife, crocodiles other racoons, feral things crawling about and then there were downed power lines and the lastly contaminated water was an issue.  There was flesh eating bacteria in the still water in Texas as well.  

So, one other thing in the field operational planner is good and it may be in your checklist is do you have permission to fly wherever when you're on the property itself.  That's another big one. I really like how that was brought up in Abby's presentation with the Tribal lands.  

Forget the airspace.  I really think it's important that pilots realize that wherever you're flying the land that you're taking off on and landing in it's really important to get permission to understand whether you're even allowed to be on that property. So, a lot of people mistake public and private property and that line is important to know.  

So lastly, I think all of us are doing this right now, in a way, that at the end of the day to really avoid incidents and accidents to become better pilots.  To be safer, it's all about collaborating, being open to feedback, and staying connected with others.  I like how John mentioned those groups to join. The more involved you are, the more you sign up for newsletters for information and you join groups, you attend webinars and conferences you will definitely reach the goal of being a better and safer pilot.  

So, that's the end of my presentation.  I want to point out that here at UC San Diego, this year we're hosting the Agricultural Natural Resource Drone Camp.  It's going to be June 18 thru the 21st.  It's 4 days and it's pretty intense.  It's all day long and it's going to focus on the Drone technology, the science of photogrammetry and remote sensing, mission planning, flight ops, safety regulation, data processing and analysis, visualization and trends. One of the hosts, the person who's putting this together, Sean Hogan, he's a former researcher and I think he's still doing research.  Brandon Stark will also be here.  They are both researchers.  Great guys and they do just a tremendous job with this and I'm going to be supporting it and co-sponsoring the event as well.

My name is over here.  My emails here and the presentation can be downloaded at the tiny URL link.  I have a lot of good links that compliment what I was saying and I highly recommend you check out the notes on the links on there and you take advantage of going a little bit deeper with this presentation.  Thank you so much.


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