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Communication Requirements for Safe Drone Operation

Drone use is increasing in the fire service as more and more departments are taking advantage of affordable and effective small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS). A drone’s aerial advantage aids in knowing the exact positions of people and potential threats to firefighters, first responders, and the public.

As more drones take to the skies, safe drone operation through effective training programs help crews reap the benefits and mitigate the risks. As a result, pilot certification, operational waivers, program transparency and rigorous training are becoming mandatory components to ensure public and interagency acceptance of these “eyes in the sky.”

A critical component of safe drone operation is consistent communication between the Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) and the Visual Observer (VO). Mission objectives, changing conditions, camera positioning and typical scene chaos require great teamwork. Maintaining continuous voice contact during flight operations keeps everyone on the same page.

REMOTE PILOT IN COMMAND (RPIC)

Released in 2019, NFPA 2400 states that the RPIC has direct responsibility and final authority for the safe operation of the aircraft including pre-flight checks, flight ops and post-flight procedures. And here’s a deviation from the usual chain of command: the RPIC has ultimate responsibility to make any mission a go/no-go based on known risks, even above a ranking Incident Commander. Why’s that? Given the potential for mid-air collisions with other craft and stationery objects, responsibility is best managed by a trained individual with a strict focus on the midair equipment.

FAA regulations mandate Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) for the entire flight, not just take-offs and landings. That may require more than one VO to keep the drone in sight at all times. An experienced and prepared crew will clearly understand and relay verbal cues and terminology including yaw, pitch and roll.

Infrared drone image of active fire scene.

Hotspot identification is one of many benefits that drone programs bring to the fire service. | CREDIT dji.com

VISUAL OBSERVERS (VOs)

The main purpose of the Visual Observer is to provide greater situational awareness during a flight. This is your spotter. While the pilot must constantly look between the screen, the sky, or his/her hands, the VO has a visual line of sight to the drone at all times.

COMMUNICATION CHALLENGES FOR DRONE CREWS

In addition to the VLOS requirement, the aircraft must remain close enough to the RPIC and/or Visual Observer to be seen without the use of devices such as binoculars. The best way to ensure the aircraft is still flying safely is the naked eye. Head’s up: urban environments and wooded areas will challenge pilot skills in these airspaces, upping the chances for close encounters and collisions with fixed objects.

While FAA guidance on the use of Visual Observers is limited to the how, NFPA 2400 details job performance requirements for the VO during flight operations. Section 5.4.2.1 states that the VO must “maintain visual line of sight…so that obstacles are identified and communicated to the RPIC prior to a potential collision and in a time that allows for corrective action.”

In order to establish that “time,” the VO and RPIC require instant, two-way communication. Messages need to be heard clearly and immediately, without shouting, delays or other interruptions. Especially when operating in the distraction-filled environment of an active scene.

USING WIRELESS HEADSETS FOR SAFE DRONE OPERATION

A portable wireless headset system provides sUAS crews with a number of advantages that enable instant and safe communication between the RPIC and VO during flight operations:

  1. Full-duplex communication – Instant, simultaneous conversation allows for immediate feedback without push-to-talk delays that may compromise mission safety.
  2. Hands-free operation –The RPIC does not have to take a hand off the aircraft controller to initiate or maintain contact with the VO, ground crew, or command.
  3. Situational awareness – Look for technology (sometimes called Listen-Through) that allows both the RPIC and VO to hear environmental sound at a user-adjustable volume level. Pilots should be able to hear alarms, vehicle traffic and converse with people without headsets while maintaining continuous communication with ground crew members.
  4. Focus and concentration – Reduced background noise and clear audio remove barriers to effective communication and improves the ground crew’s ability to concentrate on the safe operation of the aircraft.
  5. Extended range – With an operational range of up to 1,600 feet from the ComHub, the RPIC and VO can separate as the aircraft moves through the operating area and maintain continuous, two-way communication.
  6. Two-way radio integration – Connect a portable radio to a single headset for private PTT communication. Connect it to the system’s ComHub to enable PTT for all ground crew members.
  7. Support for multiple crews – Flying two drones? Evaluate communication solutions that provide discrete channels, allowing multiple crews to separate their comms without the need for additional equipment.

Hands-free wireless communication headsets ensure that your pilots and VOs have reliable communications technology with the mobility and range they need to operate successfully.

Learn more about Firecom Portable Wireless Systems.

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