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National Drone Safety Awareness Week: SAM leads the Geospatial Industry in UAS Safety and Maintenance

SAM is proud to celebrate National Drone Safety Awareness Week. At SAM, we consider safety in every aspect of our UAS program, from training to project implementation and risk mitigation. Senior Project Manager, Wayne Phelps, was instrumental in creating SAM’s UAS program safety measures. Below, Wayne provides insight to the safety protocols SAM has implemented to ensure successful flights and an efficient UAS program.

1. What is your background and how did you get involved with SAM’s UAS program?

I spent 20 years in the Marine Corps and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2018. During my last six years in the service, I worked in the military UAS industry including writing UAS requirements for future programs in the Pentagon, managing UAS operations in a squadron, and commanding a UAS squadron. Upon retirement from the service, I wanted to work in the commercial UAS industry and looked for companies that had UAS programs. My search led me to SAM. I applied for a job that didn’t really fit my profile, but my resume was passed to the geospatial department and my position was created for me specifically. SAM hires people for talent and values its employees.

2. How does SAM’s UAS program maintain the SAM Core Value of Safety?

Aviation operations are inherently risky, particularly when flying UAS in close proximity to client assets. However, SAM has created strong and detailed safety protocols to mitigate that risk and protect client assets. We require that every project we execute has an extensive safety and risk mitigation plan tailored to that flight and project, which preserves our assets and our clients’ assets. Each pilot completes a thorough manager reviewed risk mitigation plan to assess the risk prior to any flight. Additionally, all pilots must adhere to strict safety rules including having at least eight uninterrupted hours of rest, controlled hours in their workday, and limited consecutive days of work to prevent acute and cumulative fatigue. In the history of SAM’s UAS program, including over 10,000 flights and 2,680 flight hours, we have never once damaged a client’s asset. That record speaks to the professionalism of our pilots and our dedication to safety each flight.

3. What training do SAM pilots undergo before flying a UAS and how do you mitigate risk for pilots?

As a standard, every UAS pilot at SAM is certified and licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We go beyond that and rigorously train each pilot with our internal training program. Our pilots are experts on the variety of UAS we operate, the projects that we execute, and our standard operating procedures and safety management system. Our pilots learn the SAM way in a training environment before we ever put them to work on a client’s project. Most importantly, we teach our pilots to assess risk through any possible scenario including environmental elements such as wind, rain, and terrain that can affect flight safety.

4. How is SAM’s UAS program different from the average individual with a UAS?

Our pilots undergo a detailed and deliberate internal training plan designed to prepare them for the variety of projects that we perform. We have a well-established and practiced aviation safety management system and a maintenance management program that ensures we execute flights in the safest manner possible with the best maintained equipment. The team of experienced office personnel that support our UAS crews in the field also differentiates us from the average individual with a UAS. In our risk mitigation system, we look at all factors that can cause issues such as air space congestion, mountainous terrain, environmental factors, or anything that can obstruct a clear line of sight for the pilot. Every pilot must fill out their risk assessment worksheet and get approval to fly by a manager prior to each project.

5. What policies does SAM have in place to ensure all UAS pilots are up to date with training?

Can you describe how SAM tracks proficiency and currency for our pilots? SAM tracks each pilot’s training, currency, and proficiency using an interactive online system we developed internally. There was no UAS fleet management system on the market that satisfied all of our requirements, so we built one! We measure proficiency as time a pilot has flying a platform and project, which doesn’t translate to all drones as each drone needs its own proficiency level for the pilot. Currency for pilots is to have the required five flights every 30 days. At SAM, we keep track of all our pilots to remain proficient and current with their flights.

6. How does SAM track maintenance procedures?

Our maintenance procedures are tracked in an online system that we tailored to suit our needs. In manned aviation, most parts on a plane have outlined time between overhaul and failure however, most UAS do not have specific recommendations for maintenance. At SAM, we monitor and track each of our drones to determine timing for part failure and maintenance needs and replace parts preemptively. Each aircraft is tracked by flight hours and when the next scheduled maintenance is due.

7. What kind of UAS’ does SAM currently utilize? What are they capable of doing?

UAS is just another tool to conduct aerial mapping, surveys, and inspections. No single tool can perform all of those functions, so we have a three-tiered approach to the aircraft we use. We offer three Tiers of UAS to provide a tailored approach for our clients and each project. Tier 1 UAS consist of small multi-rotor aircraft capable of carrying a single camera. Tier 2 are larger multi-rotor systems that carry high resolution cameras used for inspection and Tier 3 are heavy-lift electric helicopters or gas and electric hybrids used for aerial mapping and inspection simultaneously that carry multiple sensors including LiDAR, high resolution DSLR cameras, video cameras, and thermal cameras. Through this method, we provide the most technically innovative approaches for a wide range of services. In addition, SAM prides itself in offering a fleet of UAS that provides a great amount of data security for our clients by mainly utilizing UAS built in the U.S. or Europe.

8. What is your favorite part about being a certified UAS pilot?

The commercial UAS industry uses leading edge technology. As the industry stabilizes, we are using UAS in new and interesting ways that increase efficiencies, provide a safer alternative for project delivery, and significantly reduce the time to execute a project. My favorite part of being a UAS pilot is solving challenging problems in a new and unique way.

SAM is a leader in deploying advanced UAS technologies to provide best-in-class geospatial solutions, while mitigating risk and considering flight safety in every project we deliver. Our team continuously conducts systematic evaluation to improve service and protect our employees and clients.

To learn more about our UAS program, please visit our Geospatial web page.