How to Succeed with and Scale a Drone Program

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Talk about starting a drone program is happening at companies of all sizes, but establishing the right foundations to ensure these kinds of programs don’t fail is far less pervasive. At DJI AirWorks 2018, Rachel Mulholland’s presentation, “Bringing Your Drone Program to Scale: Lessons Learned from Going Big” laid out what it means to achieve success and avoid failure with the technology in one of the best presentations I’ve seen on the topic.

Rachel is a Consultant for Kestrel Management, which has over 20 years of proven excellence with operational risk management, compliance assurance and process improvement across all the major heavy industries. She is focused on the company’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Program Development and Management with a special focus on industrial / large scale drone operations. Her experiences and insights with drone technology was evident throughout her presentation, which focused on UAS applications for infrastructure, explored why UAS programs fail, and detailed the foundations of a successful drone program.

We caught up with Rachel to further explore a few of those items and also detail some of her lessons learned from out in the field. In the interview below, she details why drone programs often fail, what it means to deal with positive and negative assumptions people have about the technology, why it’s so important to have a UAS Program Operations Manual, and much more.

  

Jeremiah Karpowicz: Tell us a little bit about Kestrel Management. What kind of services does the company provide, and what are some of your primary responsibilities with the organization?  

Rachel Mulholland: Kestrel Management assists our clients with many of their difficult operational challenges (the ones that often present the greatest business risks) and we work with management to deliver reliable, achievable, and sustainable solutions. We’ve seen how drones can be used as a risk mitigation tactic in virtually any safety management system.

My role as the Industrial UAS Programs Consultant is to weave my experience with UAS technologies and UAS Program Management into the traditional management systems and services that Kestrel already provides. I help integrate the concept of UAS operations into the client’s existing management systems, and/or help companies establish a separate management system for their UAS Programs. Regardless of the size of a company’s fleet or strategic approach to UAS operations, developing and maintaining a UAS Program Management System is crucial to the safety, performance and success of any drone operations.

 

What can you tell us about your focus on industrial / large scale drone operations and how you’ve seen the technology make a real difference? 

I’ve seen the UAS Industry evolve through three stages of growth so far: First, it was a niche industry founded by federal groups, hobbyists and ex-commercial or military pilots mostly providing drone services, drone training and drone defense technologies. Then a wave of tech-savvy entrepreneurs quickly joined the scene and brought amazing new technologies with them. This is where we see the step from drone services to drone technologies.

Now we have advanced volumetric tools that can analyze the data captured using a drone in real-time or shortly after capturing. We have robot learning algorithms that have been designed to autonomously identify, categorize and summarize a myriad of inspection-related outcomes. We also see the flight / fleet management platforms coming from this group and equipment providers / servicers. In my opinion, these continue to be the two main branches of the UAS Industry, the drone service providers and the drone tech companies.

I think the industry is in a very important phase- everyday use of drones in the workplace. Enterprise level UAS operations are a big deal right now. Everyone from municipalities to the Fortune 500s are getting involved in drones and drone operations.

In my opinion, 4 years from now it will be impossible for any major company to abstain from incorporating UAS technologies into their business operations for two reasons; drones are effective, and drones are attractive. Heavy industries such as rail, utilities, manufacturing and agriculture already face workforce acquisition and retention difficulties. Younger people do not value long work days and hard manual labor as much as the generations of our parents and grandparents did. Drones make those laborious, time consuming and high-risk job tasks easier to accomplish. They make dangerous jobs safer.

They make old-fashioned jobs cool again.

 

Your AirWorks 2018 presentation, “Bringing Your Drone Program to Scale; Lessons Learned from Going Big” contained some incredible insights around what it means to make drone technology make sense for enterprise organizations. How much of that comes from Kestrel’s Drone Program Management services

Thank you for that feedback. It was really rewarding to see how many people were interested in what we had to share with them.

Managing an enterprise level drone program can feel a lot like running your own business. It can feel like there are more questions than there are answers. The rules and regulations are a moving target and new technologies are being introduced to the industry every quarter. It can be hard to keep up and the management process can become overwhelming for anyone. These conditions can leave companies at risk of spinning their wheels (or propellers) without getting anywhere. Having an actual Management System in place is crucial to the growth and success of any program.

All the insights shared in my presentation come as a result of Kestrel Management’s strong foundation in management systems. Kestrel’s Drone Program Management services are a natural extension of what Kestrel does best and what Kestrel has been doing well for over 20 years. We have a team of experienced professionals that specialize in operational risk management, process improvement, management systems, compliance assurance and business continuity. We come into any client and systematically assess the consistency and efficacy of their business operations management. We’re consistent. We’re methodical. We’re knowledgeable and we’re organized. We know what we’re doing. Kestrel makes it easy to understand management systems and management systems make it easier to run a drone program.

 

You talked through the benefits drones can enable in terms of saving time, monitoring changes over time, using data to be proactive, etc. and I wonder how often you have to explain these possibilities to stakeholders that are considering the technology. How many of these benefits do some people already assume will come with the technology, and which do you need to more fully explain to them?

That’s a good question. I think people and companies in the UAS Industry are always developing new and exciting ways to apply drones on the job. For audiences like AirWorks, AUVSI Xponential, and other UAS specific conferences I think the potential benefits and applications of drones are well understood. What people and companies in the UAS Industry sometimes don’t think through are the risks associated with drone operations. We don’t see a lot of traditional business management systems consideration being given to UAS operations. Things like risk mitigation, formalized program management and high-level operations management. So, with clients that are already using drones, this is the area where we end up doing some education.

There is another segment of the market that has no experience or very limited experience with drones and/or has heard of drones but not engaged with them. These types of clients are excited to hear about how drones can be applied to their work operations. They’re interested and quickly understand the conceptual benefits of drones on the job. Advanced payloads and confined space platforms tend to generate the most excitement.

The real work is in helping clients turn their excitement into a safe and structured approach to UAS integration and program management, regardless of their level of experience with drones.

 

Of course, making assumptions about what the technology is going to do can also lead to problems. What can you say about some of the unwarranted or unrealistic expectations some people come into drone technologies with? 

Well, my response to this question will become outdated by this time next year, I’m sure, but I would say that there is sometimes a belief that drones are a magic bullet. Drones mainly capture imagery. They’re flying cameras.

I would caution people to keep in mind that the vast majority of drone operations do not involve completing physical tasks. You can do load carrying, sure, and you can disperse liquids with a drone too, and those are important aspects of drones, but the real bulk of industrial drone applications consist of capturing visual data points and then either manually reviewing them and/or analyzing them in some way. There are a lot of benefits in utilizing stills or video data gathered by drones, but at this time the common workplace drone does not complete physical tasks, aside from carrying items/spraying crops. Meaning, if you inspect a solar field for damage points, you will still need to send employees out there to make the repairs. If you survey a construction site for fallen wires or other workplace hazards after a storm, you will still need a team of human employees to conduct the cleanup efforts and develop the risk mitigation plan.

Drones aren’t going to fly around your work site and fix all the problems it can identify. At least not on a large scale, not yet. This is why drone operations require a drone program and program management. Drones are a tool, and you need a human work team to apply the tool consistently, safely and effectively. I think people sometimes forget how important the human part of UAS Operations can be.

Also, battery management. The level of work surrounding keeping your equipment charged and staying current on firmware updates can be unexpected for companies. You’re also dealing with lithium-ion batteries, a federally classified hazardous material, and proper hazmat management is a very real need in any drone program.

 

Your Reliable Financial Resources slide is one of the best breakdowns I’ve seen around what kind of costs are really associated with drone technology. What kind of challenges have you seen arise when people don’t consider items like recurring costs or expansion costs? Is not doing so a big factor in drone program failures?  

The technology is so exciting that people often fall folly to short-term thinking. If you don’t take the time to plan ahead, or slow down during the process and recalibrate, then you run the risk of coming to a point where you need more resources than you have in order to maintain your current state. Then you suffer unnecessary setbacks and delay your own success, and again anytime this happens, you’re running the risk of losing your financial backing/investors.

I think most drone programs fail when they are not able to clearly define and communicate the efficacy and positive impact of their program. Drone programs can be expensive, and drones are not yet commonplace enough to be a permanent fixture on any company’s financial sheet. Every drone program needs to be able to clearly communicate how they are benefiting the company. When this doesn’t happen, funding gets cut, investors drop out, and the program is at risk of dissolving.

 

Many of your lessons learned around setting up a drone program boil down to setting the right expectations, and that extends from the executive level down to users. Do companies run into bigger issues when they don’t set expectations at all, or when they set them too high?

Either way, companies will run into unnecessary setbacks which put the entire UAS program at risk of failing. If you set the expectations too low, or fail to set any at all, your program would be at risk for unsafe flight activity, accidental violations of federal rules and regulations, unexpected applications of drones and other issues that arise out of a poorly managed program.

On the flip side, if you set expectations too high, your program could have a harder time proving a valid return on investment. The bigger the investment the bigger the benefits need to be. Either route could place any drone program at risk of losing its financial backing, which is ultimately how drone programs fail.

 

You mentioned that having a UAS Program Operations Manual is a must, and I wonder what you’ve seen as the most successful process around creating one. Is this kind of Manual often created from scratch, or are they built upon either internal or external resources that already exist?

This depends on a variety of factors related to the context in which drones are being applied. This is where the cross-functional strategy really comes into play. The end result will be strengthened by a diverse team regardless of how complex of a task it is for any one company to create a thorough UAS Program Operations Manual. Having multiple viewpoints on the team will increase the opportunities to mirror existing policies and procedures.

I would say, with a few minor exceptions, any opportunity to mirror an existing policy / procedure that sufficiently meets the company’s needs, should be considered. You want your program to align with the rest of the company where it can and address its unique management needs where necessary.

 

What does it mean to set metrics and evaluation methods to show the value of someone’s UAS program? How much variance should there be from one company’s set of metrics and evaluation methods to another’s? 

Well, as we explain in our presentation, each UAS program should have what we like to call, two-fold measurable goals. Companies should be able to measure the impact of UAS applications on their pre-existing core business objectives and, separately, able to measure the efficacy of their UAS Program.

The core business objectives are the goals and performance measures that were already in place prior to instituting a UAS Program within the company. If your UAS program is properly structured, you should be able to identify how drones have impacted these core business measures. An example would be equipment inspections, in 2017 Company A was able to inspect all of their 25 wind turbines once each year, in 2018 after drones were introduced each wind turbine was able to be inspected 3 times within the calendar year. As a result, X amount of damages were identified and repaired, and the number of wind turbine failures decreased from X to X. This is a pretty loose example, but you get the point. These metrics will be unique to each company depending on their core business and the context in which they are applying drone technology.

On the other hand, companies should be able to measure the efficacy of their UAS Program. These metrics should be somewhat uniform to all UAS Programs. The only differences would be in the extent to which the UAS program is managed internally versus outsourced. Companies that have built their training, certification and compliance assurance into their internal business objectives may have a larger selection of measurements to choose from when evaluating their UAS program. Whereas, companies that keep their UAS flight operations or data analysis external to their company would be more interested in evaluating the efficacy of their workflow, as opposed to actual flight/pilot efficiencies.

 

If I’m someone who has been considering what it would mean to create a drone program at my company, but all of the details associated with the process that we’ve been talking about make me think moving forward with that idea is going to be too complicated, what would you tell me? 

I would tell you that new technologies can be overwhelming and it’s completely normal to feel unsure of how to move forward with your own UAS Program. You can always contact us at Kestrel Management and we can help walk you through some of these decision points.

 

 

 

 

 




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