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Drones don’t lie: And neither should the pilot

Drones are an effective, lost-cost tool for first responders to get eyes in the sky during a critical event. They are flourishing in all sectors of the first responder world as acceptance has gained traction and the cost of operating is minimal with a great return on investment.

Drones are flying computers that capture data in various forms including operational location, control station location, altitude, airspeed, imagery collection, and many other points. Not only are drones flying computers they also are mechanical machines with many moving parts and are subject to failure. There is always the possibility of a crash or some unexpected behavior that can occur while flying. It happens.

Was the software updated recently, or was an incomplete or improper preflight check conducted? Possibly. The best course of action when your aircraft does something unexpected, or crashes is to take it out of service and conduct an investigation of what has happened. While investigation sounds like a strong word, it is what is required when the tool/technology does not behave as intended. Did another pilot experience something similar? Ask your team.

Having spent many years flying State Police helicopters as a professional, one thing was stressed to all pilots, mechanics, and peers: Be honest and upfront about an accident, incident, busted airspace, or other deviation that had the potential to impact the department or for the safety of others. I preach to clients that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) views Remote Pilots as just that, pilots. Pilots who operate in the National Airspace System (NAS). That comes with an expectation of professional behavior and decision-making.

I have worked with pilots that have “bent metal”, over-temped an engine, and believe it or not, taxied into a hangar. Those mistakes were obvious and pretty much difficult to avoid attention. It is the unseen damage from mistakes such as exceeding an airspeed limitation putting stress on the airframe or over torquing an engine that could remain hidden until something catastrophic happens that causes it to be revealed. Earlier aircraft did not have the capability of capturing onboard data points for the maintainers but that is slowly changing. There was an honesty policy that encouraged pilots to fess up and admit a mistake without fear of reprisal. The safety culture fostered incident reporting and if you were where you were supposed to be, flying the mission profile in the correct manner and something happened, well, generally no harm, no foul.

On the flip side, if a pilot was constantly damaging an aircraft or had too many mishaps or incidents, management was correct to sit down with the pilot and conduct an investigation to understand why it was happening. Sometimes the pilots would face grounding until remedial training was completed to correct the deficiency. Sometimes, and in the extreme, a pilot would be dismissed from flight status and recommended to go to work in another unit. No matter the outcome, as professional aviators we have an obligation to report any unsafe condition whether we are the cause or not. Failing to do so in this business carries the risk of serious injury or worse, the loss of life, and this includes drone operations. It is that important.

So, why would I publish an article about this topic? Well, for starters, people do people things and for their own reasons. Self-preservation, avoiding embarrassment, fear of penalties, and the list goes on. The names and departments from this point forward are fictitious but the information about the incident is real.

One of my clients, I’ll call them the South Police Department Drone Unit, that I worked with had a very senior supervisor, let’s call him Sgt. X who was one of the pilots that I trained. From the very beginning, transparency and safety were prioritized topics. Students were advised that drones capture more than students may realize, crashes do happen, and to be open about the safety culture. While conducting initial FAA Part 107 training (drone regulations), I always highlight the importance of transparency and note that the system will “tell on” the pilot, so it is important to be truthful in the documentation of the flight logs and reporting.

At the completion of training, Sgt. X scored very high on the FAA Remote Pilot exam, and I thought he had a bright future as a Remote Pilot for the rest of his career. I received a call one day after our course concluded and Southern Police Department Drone Unit was up and running. I was asked about conducting a forensic analysis of a drone and some particulars of what data could be recovered. I was told that Sgt. X had some free time during a shift and requested to fly a unit aircraft. He specifically asked to fly Brand A since he wanted to become more familiar with it. He was encouraged, as all of their pilots are, to take the drone out and take as much time as he needed.

During the flight, the Brand A aircraft did something unexpected and crashed. Sgt. X gathered up the drone, wiped the dirt and debris off, and put it away without making appropriate notifications that he had experienced a malfunction and a subsequent crash. After putting the aircraft away, he then brought Brand D out and finished his flight time with that drone without incident.

After completing his paperwork, the Unit Supervisor asked Sgt X how his flight went. Sgt. X volunteered to the supervisor that Brand A appeared to have damage, so he opted not to fly and used Brand D instead. The Unit supervisor was surprised since he was not aware of any damage to Brand A. An investigation was started and the data from Brand A was downloaded and examined.

On the date, time, and location, Brand A data indicated that the drone flew until a sudden stop and no further information was collected. This information coincided with Sgt X’s location on that date and time. Upon checking the flight data of Brand D, the information correlated with Sgt. X’s flight log information and showed he did indeed fly that drone on the date, time, and location but after the times recorded on Brand A.

Obviously, the information as told by Sgt. X about Brand A did not match up with the aircraft flight logs and the damaged drone story. Sgt. X was now looking at a Brady-Giglio (Brady) charge as a result of an internal investigation of the facts. Under Brady, a law enforcement officer found to be untruthful in any testimony or factual investigatory report, may have their credibility impeached as a witness by the Court system. If a police officer cannot be a reliable witness or investigator in a case because his credibility is in question, he can’t perform in the position any longer.

The event that Sgt. X tried to lie about now became a potential career-ending mistake. One that someone with his years of service, being a supervisor, and the relatively minor incident in the grand scheme of things, and the extent he went to cover up his mistake had put him in jeopardy.

When confronted with the evidence that contradicted his version of events, Sgt. X subsequently admitted what had happened and offered to pay for the damage. Sgt. X was demoted to officer and removed from the Unit and placed in an administrative function for the remainder of his career. He was fortunate to only suffer some humiliation, a pay cut, and not the total loss of a pension he has worked for so far only to be taken away for a trivial matter.

It is important to vet potential pilots that will be added to the flight rosters. Besides credibility, misuse of drone technology can result in turning the public off and just as important, giving lawmakers reason to restrict drone use by law enforcement.

Temperament, attitude, ability to receive constructive criticism, and possessing a safety mindset are all important factors to consider during the interview process. The flight crews must understand that while the equipment seems novel, it is an aircraft that will be operating in the NAS.

Mistakes will be made but it is what is learned about the mistakes after the fact that should be molded into training and lessons learned. The FAA has a Compliance Program issued under FAA Order 8000.373C that takes into account deviations from the rules. But how the deviation is addressed, not necessarily through an enforcement action is the focus of this order. Coincidently, pilots are allowed to deviate from any rule or regulation during an emergency. When the emergency has been addressed, the pilot is required to come back into compliance. And as a bonus, a report doesn’t always have to be filed by a pilot unless the FAA asks about it.

People make mistakes, but how we handle a mistake is the most important factor. When it was all said and done, the investigation also revealed a recent software update was completed in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The update appeared to have had a flaw that was in the process of being evaluated by the manufacturer. A patch was later issued to fix the issue and Brand A was offering limited repairs to drone damage if any had occurred due to the glitch.

Sgt. X was not aware of this information, and neither was the Unit supervisor at the time. All of this could have been resolved with no penalties if Sgt. X had just been forthcoming with the events of that day. As the saying goes, the cover-up is generally worse than the crime.

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