Sean Greenwood discusses the current state of the commercial UAV industry in Canada and how maintenance must be addressed by the general industry in order to increase safety and customer trust.
Unmanned Maintenance: an enabler of industry growth
Aviation has had 5 major inflection points:
- WW1 –> rapid increase in design and funding –>prop, fixed wing –> came home to roost in civilian airspace –> early ortho surveying, mail delivery, medivac.
- WW2 –> ultra high speed prop fixed wing and the development of the turbine fighter –> lead to trans Atlantic, transcontinental flight.
- Korea/Vietnam –> massive advancement in helicopter design, understanding of emergency procedures –> returned to the civilian theatre for medivac, power line installation, upstream exploration (oil and gas).
- The Iraq/Afghanistan war(s) –> the unmanned age –> $3 trillion spent on both wars –> exponential increase in unmanned vehicles –> robust autopilots in combination of cell phone technology = exponential increase in civilian use of unmanned aviation products.
Through each of these inflection points the general population initially didn’t fully trust the aviation technology and therefore enable certain use cases, until the reliability (intelligent design and maintenance of the designs integrity) got to a certain level. The reliability of airworthiness is established by the manufacturers and maintained by the AME or maintenance engineer.
What is critical for everyone to remember is that we are still in early days of this technology. What the market considers an advanced UAV systems design today will be laughable in 10 years. The previous advancements of design came from pilots pushing the limits and maintenance engineers making it work, then, the maintainer telling the manufacturer what the next model must have for these use cases/environments.
At the moment, there is a general disconnect between the manufacture and the operator because the middle ground does not have a well and uniformly educated engineer to express the requirements in the field.
Currently, UAV hull insurance is over 5 times that of manned aviation due to uneducated actors and a complete lack of structure around airworthiness. The largest underwriter in Canada has started to refuse to insure applicants due to several bad experiences such as operators intentionally crashing their UAV for a new model. This is in part thanks to the extreme depreciation rates of these vehicles but also that most people who buy these airframes don’t know how to discriminate between a toy and an actual commercial aviation product. Only 1% of the people buying these units have the experience to ask: how the vehicle reacts to power failure, link failure, gps failure, whether there’s a POH or maintenance outlines. When all commercial operators will be required to have compliant vehicles in the next 2 years you’re going to see a massive ‘write-off’ vehicles claimed and the other operators will ultimately have to pay for it. There is an ‘uneducated’ component of this industry which is increasing the costs of operating for everyone else. More over that same component is under cutting true operators by under representing the true cost of compliance because again, they don’t know what they don’t know.
High Hull rates are forcing operators to self insure. This maybe acceptable for larger operations however the net effect is that generally people buy cheaper less capable systems as the cost of loosing the unit is otherwise very high. These cheaper units are not compliant, don’t have operator training programs and don’t have maintenance schedules. Self insurance is increasing risk to the whole National Airspace System. If we are able to get more formal maintenance structures the insurance companies can reduce the costs of hull insurance which will bring the industry into a more institutional steady state.
Determination of fault
Maintenance is not only the bedrock of operations but also for the generally safe perception of the industry. Similar to the oil and gas industry, one pipeline spill by one operator brands the whole industry negatively.
The current UAV market effectively has its head in the sand with regards to what the systems can do and what they represent. ‘Autopilot’ is a misnomer. A pilot’s job isn’t to Fly A to B, it is to manage risk and in the event of a systems failure, to ensure that the vehicle and its inhabitants return to the ground safely. This technology represents a reduction or change in the number of tasks the human must participate in, as the ‘system’ manages more of the work load.
Maintenance of airworthiness is more important in some respects than it is in manned aviation as the technology is taking over more of the operator’s roles, with the proliferation of ‘pro-sumer drones’ and their inherent (and perhaps criminal) negligence for standardized design. The latest offering from both DJI and GOPRO have oriented their NAV lights completely wrong. This is worse than if they didn’t have any nav lights at all because now manned pilots who are flying near these aircraft are given false or misleading information of that aircrafts direction.
The point is that we are still in the early days of this technology. The use cases are still in flux and therefore so are the design and market participants. As such, we need to all realize that the systems must be maintained to ‘as new’ condition at minimum. Most of these units are ‘built for purpose’ in the USA or other warm climates. Canada is different… its colder, more barren and unforgiving.
Without proper record keeping and maintenance any issue or event will be solely on the operator and therefore the insurance underwriter (if they are insured properly). A well-trained maintainer who is following the manufacturer’s instructions and ensure that all work has been recorded is an insurance policy. If the operator has done everything in their power both during the flight (pilot) and in the lead-up (maintenance) then the accountability lands on the manufacturer.
At the moment there is no effective mechanism to enforce the current rules at scale which is hurting the operators who are working within the rules. It’s simply not practical to expect Transport to ‘in person’ audit all commercial and private operators in Canada. What is possible however is to have standardized Excel based logs sheets which outline the who, what, where, why of all flights.
All autopilots can self generate the information for these logs and can even encrypt the entries from tampering from the operator. Transport can mandate that all future aircraft must have this function to be airworthy. The National Research Council (NRC) can develop the software and macros to audit the data so that all the Transport officer is presented with is the negligent actors. This further encourages ‘good actors’ and focuses Transports resources on future rules and enforcement on the smaller scope of ‘bad actors’.
Unmanned technology is happening. There will need to be people to maintain these systems. There is no program for marine, land and air as of yet. This is an opportunity. This must be addressed.
As we are all aware, the next major hurtle is standardized commercial BVLOS flights in the civilian national airspace. This will not be a hockey stick growth graph with no set backs or massive leaps in enabling technologies. What is for sure however is that those of us who venture out into to this will either keep maintenance a priority for the betterment of not only ourselves but for that of the industry as a whole, or one bad apple will shut this whole thing down.
I propose we get a head of this while we still can. As we already have a ‘compliant operators’ syllabus we must also develop a ‘compliant maintainers syllabus.
The Alberta Aviation Council has been working to get a UAV maintainers course registered with the province and we are hoping that you can understand the value of such a program and how it can help the industry and the country as it competes on the world stage.
Points of support:
- Two Alberta Government Ministries are in support of this initiative. Advanced Education and Economic Development and Trade
- SAIT has shown an interest in the maintenance component.
- Many insurance companies and brokers are supported this maintenance initiative. (Catlin, HUB Insurance, Marsh)
- National Research Council is interested in this initiative.
- Two organizations in Saskatchewan are interested in the initiative. One organization indicated that this maintenance program would be of interest in the United States as well.
- Only government interested in a maintenance program for UAVs is Australia
- The FAA stated that by the end of the year, 600,000 commercial drones will be flying.
- If this application to the Alberta government is approved for a designated occupation for the UAV industry, it will be a first in Canada.
- The UAV sales expected to grow from 2.5 million to 7 million in 2020 [report from the FAA], there will be a need for a certified maintenance technician to maintain these UAVs in a safe operating condition in part to eliminate the mechanical problems associated with UAV incidents. Of these sales, many of course will be commercial UAVs. Regardless there is 180% increase over a four-year period.
- Over 130 industries in Alberta have been identified as having a connection with this industry.
- A statement from Gina Bento, Commercial Specialist, Aerospace and Defense, U.S. Consulate Montreal stated: “Over 50% of Canada’s UVS (Unmanned Vehicle Systems) companies are located in Alberta (more than 130 companies, military agencies, and educational institutions working in all aspects of UVS).”
- Two UAV centers in Canada, Alberta is home of the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems located at Foremost, Alberta and the diverging range of technologies and industries already located in this province.
- To be approved this Fall, the Foremost operation, will be the first in North America to have Transport Canada authority to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAVs for testing and research. A major milestone for Alberta and Canada.
- The Canadian Military has shown some interest in this maintenance program.
- Transport Canada has shown in interest in this initiative.
- Alberta Aviation Council is now on the CARAC workgroup.