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By Sally Huynh, Senior Customer Marketing Manager at Skyward, A Verizon company
As of December 2020, the United States Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Aviation Administration reported drones to be among the fastest-growing segment in the entire transportation sector. Today, regional DOTs are increasingly turning to drones to save time and money. According to a 2019 survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 36 out of 50 state DOTs were running drone operations internally. This includes Ohio DOT, considered a national leader in government drone use, which dispatches pilots across the state from the Ohio UAS Center in Springfield and maintaining pilots in three other high-demand DOT districts.
From routine inspections of vertical and linear infrastructure to performing highway crash reconstructions in a fraction of the time and pinpointing where to direct heavy machinery to clear roads after an event, today’s DOTs are using drone technology in diverse and fascinating ways. Here’s a quick look at some of the most popular use cases we’re seeing with transportation departments across the country:
- Survey mapping
- Traffic monitoring
- Structural inspections
- Disaster response
- Construction progress updates
- Ice control and snow removal
- Pavement inspections
- High-mast light pole inspections
While the percentage of drone adoption is on the rise, a majority of businesses don’t have a central group who controls and manages their drone fleet. This is key for not only implementing consistent, safe operations across an entire department, organization or perhaps multiple locations, but also making it easier to complete data collection at scale as your drone program grows over time. More importantly, identifying a group who will be responsible for overseeing your team’s drone operations will help increase visibility for stakeholders across the organization, which can help garner funding and support for new hardware or needed upgrades.
To follow in the footsteps of Ohio DOT and other state transportation agencies running successful drone programs, it’s important to address some of the most common roadblocks companies encounter while building a drone program, as well as steps you can take to help overcome them:
1. Not knowing where to start
Most drone programs fail to get started because most people don’t know what the first step is. Large enterprises and public-facing corporations have high standards for safety and low tolerance for risk. It’s not uncommon for promising programs to be stopped by executives in instances where program leaders are unable to prove that they can adequately manage those risks. Here are a few ideas to help get you going:
- Engage with your legal, risk or compliance teams from the very start to get conversations rolling. Tolerance levels for new technologies and initiatives can vary greatly across organizations and legal and compliance teams.
- Connect with your peers. With the pandemic, we’ve seen numerous peer exchanges between departments of transportation comparing use cases. It can also be helpful to look to industry peers and replicate how they’ve developed their drone program, rather than recreating the wheel. Additionally, consider exploring what other groups outside of your department could benefit from by adopting drones.
- Start small. With new uses cases emerging every day, don’t’ be tempted to do everything from the start or begin with the most complicated operation. Instead, select one or two strong use cases that are not only simple and straightforward, but will more importantly, help save your team time and money as well as improve safety. Often the most common task can be the most valuable in helping you establish the value of your drone program.
2. Getting buy-in and support
Launching and operating a successful drone program requires collecting buy-in and support from others who work alongside you. Educating your fellow employees and leadership group about your drone program can be a great place to start as convincing colleagues and top-level executives that your drone program is worth the capital investment can be one of the biggest hurdles you encounter.
- This is another scenario in which it can be useful to identify use cases that align with your business objectives. For example, are there any use cases that can improve upon processes and systems that your organization already has in place? Also, consider making the first use case about the priorities of your company’s stakeholders and executives, which will help you get the support you need for your flight operations.
- Integrate into existing workflow. If your colleagues or top-level executives are hesitant to incorporate new operations or technology, assure them that drones can simply be another tool in the toolbox, and that education and training can easily help dispel any concerns about using drones.
- In cases where doubt continues, propose a pilot program for a simple, low-risk use case so that you can demonstrate and lead with the value you expect to achieve.
The drone industry is moving fast and even the most innovative and forward-looking companies are required to make difficult decisions related to budgets and funding. This is true for everyday business operations under normal circumstances, but is perhaps emphasized now more than ever as companies across the globe continue to recover from the pandemic.
- It’s alarming how many drone programs don’t involve their finance or accounting department. One of the most important steps in developing a mature drone program is planning your budget, ROI and all of the elements in between. It’s easy to overlook key variables, but collaborating with your accounting or finance team can help ensure that you’re in a position to get the resources you need to allow your program to soar.
- Become familiar with your company’s entire budget process. This includes noting key deadlines as well as identifying stakeholders who you’ll want to involve in the beginning stages. Completing these steps will better prepare you for compiling your projected numbers or proposed budget so that you’re able to plan for ROI.
- ROI can ultimately make or break your drone program. If your company isn’t seeing benefits from your program, your investments can dry up quickly. Keep in mind that ROI and payback period are some of the most common metrics stakeholders and finance departments will rely on to justify business investments.
4. Liability and public distrust
Drones present an incredible solution for helping to mitigate operational risk. That’s not to say that the technology doesn’t present risks of its own and sometimes these risks can be unknown, stemming from things like community hesitance and airspace considerations to safety and more.
- Begin with a thorough risk assessment to identify any safety issues or concerns. This can be a great way to help manage risk as you launch your drone program. If this process is new for your organization, contact a drone management platform provider who can tap into their team of experts to help guide you in the right direction. These concerns should then be addressed in your team’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) to ensure that every pilot is following the same guidelines for every flight. In addition to helping your company establish a strong foundation of accountability, this can help decrease variables that lead to human error.
- SOPs should also be incorporated into your workflow through checklists, flight risk assessments and flight approvals. This is key for supporting internal and regulatory compliance, risk mitigation, insurance requirements and operational safety and efficiency. Having operating procedures can help ensure uniform safety and quality of your team’s operations regardless of who performs them.
- Of course, to achieve maximum results, it’s also important for your team’s SOPs and safe workflow to be accompanied by a centralized system or platform that will keep track of your flight operations. Recording your missions, tracking your safety and knowing where, when and how you’re flying are crucial. The best way to do this is through a drone management platform. It’s worth mentioning that the more your drone program scales, the more line of sight you’ll need to know what every pilot in your program is doing, especially in organizations that are nationwide or public facing. Having a robust system for documenting and reporting on your drone operations is key for not only launching, but also maintaining a drone program.
Ohio DOT blazes a trail
With one of the largest programs in the U.S., Ohio DOT is using drone technology to complete projects in a fraction of the time compared to traditional approaches, in addition to saving money and improving safety for crew members and motorists alike. With the second largest bridge inventory in the U.S., nearly 45,000, Ohio DOT estimated the number of bridges that could be inspected over the lifetime of a drone at 100, equaling $45 per bridge inspection. Looking at the big picture, the agency estimates annual savings on equipment and labor in excess of $400,000. As of November of last year, the agency had flown more than 1,800 flights and 480 projects in 2020, which amounted to 990.3 hours logged by the agency’s pilots. As a national leader in government drone use, the department shares its drone capabilities with other local and state agencies that are standing up drone programs or need flight operations, including the Ohio EPA.
Ohio DOT and other transportation agencies across the country are identifying new ways to save money, improve efficiency and reduce risk every day. The future of transportation is being transformed by drones and if you’re looking to leave your mark, identifying a group of individuals within your organization who will be responsible for managing your team’s drone program can help put you on a path towards building consistent and safe operations for today and tomorrow. As your operations take off and start to scale, a safe workflow, solid SOPs, understanding of your company’s budget process and strong communications with both key stakeholders and compliance teams all deserve careful consideration to help your team conquer roadblocks that may arise along the way.