Is Your UAV Airworthy?

All aircraft that fly in the national airspace system must meet airworthiness requirements as set forth by the manufacturer and the FAA.  Upon meeting these stringent requirements, an airworthiness certificate is issued to the manufacturer for that particular aircraft.  An airworthiness certificate is an FAA document which grants authorization to operate an aircraft in flight.

Before final delivery to a prospective owner, aircraft are flight tested to the standards that conform with the airworthiness test plan that the manufacturer created and submitted to the FAA for approval.  If the aircraft passes, the certificate is signed and the aircraft is delivered to it’s owner.  This is a rough overview of the process.  The FAA provides information regarding the definition of the term "airworthy" in FAA Order 8130.2, Airworthiness Certification of Aircraft.

The take-away from this for UAV or “drone” operators, is that the airworthiness process is there to validate the fact that a flying machine can actually fly in a safe and predictable manner.  Since safety is of paramount concern, this process is rigid as well as diligent in it’s implementation.  This is done in order to maximize the safety of the flight crew, passengers, as well as people on the ground.

Since most, if not all, of the current UAVs or “drones” on the market require some level of assembly and programming, the question is: What are the owners/operators of these machines doing to ensure that these machines can fly in a safe and predictable manner?  Based upon my experience, not much.  Most are taking these machines out of the box, scanning the instructions, plugging in a battery, and advancing the throttle stick to see what happens.  I think this is unacceptable.  And I suspect the FAA thinks so as well.

Every operator of a UAV has an obligation to learn everything there is to learn about the safe operation of the craft prior to any attempt at actually flying it.  Furthermore, it is my opinion that every feature of the craft should be tested and observed to operate as documented by the manufacturer.  This ensures that the machine is operating normally and that the pilot/operator understands the features of the UAV.  The saying, “knowledge is power” is often true.  But in this situation, “knowledge is safety”.

For every UAV that I have built and flown, I created a comprehensive Airworthiness Test Plan that is designed to validate and confirm the safe operation of the UAV as per the manufacturers instruction manual.  The three areas that are covered in the test plan are as follows:

  • Physical attributes of the airframe with respect to construction methodologies and characteristics.
  • Software programming, configuration, verification and performance tuning.
  • UAS Flight characteristics and functional testing.
  • The overall methodology of the test plan is as follows:
  • All procedures detailed in the UAV test plan shall be performed by a qualified individual capable of determining the validity of the object or subject under test and it’s resultant test data.
  • The sections of test cases listed in the test plan document shall be executed in their respective order.
  • All UAV flight operations will be conducted in accordance with the current safety guidelines set forth by the American Modelers Association (AMA) regarding radio control multirotor flight and only at an AMA sanctioned flying field.  All flights will be conducted away from any public or private use airport and at no time shall be flown above 400’ AGL or in controlled airspace.  The UAV must at all times, and without exception, be flown within VOL (visual line-of-sight) and under positive control of the RC pilot except when failsafe operations are being tested.  Test flights will be conducted away from any assembly of people and clear of any buildings or obstructions.
  • Each test case shall be started and concluded as one complete task and the results are to be manually recorded, wherever applicable, immediately at the conclusion of the specified test case.
  • In most cases, test results will be determined empirically and recorded immediately.  However, some test results will be subjective and observations of the qualified individual shall be noted wherever applicable.
  • Onboard battery voltage of the UAV shall be monitored at all times during each flight test.  At no time shall a flight exceed 80% of the total battery capacity.
  • All test flights are to be flown only when nominal weather conditions exist in order to ensure safety and validity of the object or subject under test.
  • Test flights shall be conducted without a camera gimbal or any other payload.
  • All test flights will be flown in accordance with state and local laws.

Now, I’m sure that this methodology can be highly scrutinized; and the test plan that I have created can be challenged on multiple levels.  But at least I have one!  At least I have some documented procedure that I used in order to answer the question, “What did you do to ensure that the UAV was safe to fly?”  Every UAV operator should be able to answer that question by saying, “I tested the craft as best I could.  Here is the test plan that I used along with my data.”  This task is so worth the piece of mind knowing that the machine you put in the air operates as expected and can be safely operated.

If you don’t familiarize yourself with the operations and capabilities of your sUAS and validate it’s operation, then you’re just a hobbyist relying on the manufacturer to deliver a properly working toy drone.  Even the best manufacturers have calculated an error factor when producing products.  So do your best to test every aspect of your flying machine before you put it in the air.