Centralized vs. Distributed Drone Operations
It's not enough to buy equipment, start training and just let it happen. If you're going to build an enduring and effective drone program that shows returns on your time and money investment you must consider your drone program's structure. The key question is whether your program will be centralized or distributed. You might rephrase that and ask: "Will my piloting drones be a primary task or a secondary task for my network?"
There are merits to both sides of the equation and certainly no right or wrong answer. Both have structures have positives and negatives. The right answer lies in organizational fit.
A centralized program will have dedicated drone pilots. Those pilots may be sourced from technical backgrounds or internal maintenance jobs but should be looked at as aviation subject matter experts in this structure. Their core competency will effectively become data collection and processing but not data analysis. This structure will inherently be more akin to having an in-sourced drone service provider.
Typically this organizational structure will be nested within a central services unit if one exists, ideally an aviation related one if possible. Dedicated drone pilots should be expected to handle more diverse mission requirements and more complex aircraft, sensors and tasks.
Pros associated with a Centralized Program
- High level of pilot proficiency possible
- Safety gains associated with increased proficiency
- Increased capability of individual pilots possible
- Capacity for highly complex operations
- Standing emergency or quick response team
- Potentially lower training expenses
- Maintenance on equipment possibly executed internally
Cons of a Centralized Program
- Increased Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) unless other positions are reduced
- Expensive to equip based on complexity of sensors / aircraft / operation
- Managerial and dispatching functions are required
- Data analysis not executed by data collector/processor
- High volume work
- High risk work
- High complexity work
- Routine highly predictable work
- Inspections with regulatory requirements
A distributed network or structure is characterized by drone pilots who fly drones as a supplement to a different existing primary task. As an example, a lineman who routine inspects and repairs transmission lines may occasionally use a drone to avoid climbing a transmission structure. The pilots core competency remains their primary task and that analysis of data relative to that task. Their secondary responsibility is drone operations, data collection and processing.
This structure will be distributed throughout the operational, maintenance, engineering and support functions of a business or enterprise. Ideally a central office will monitor drone operations, approve or disapprove specific usages and oversee programmatic support. Approval of flights could either be via blanket approval for a whole category of flight use cases or specific to each individual flight operation, this will be a very specific question based mostly on risk tolerance and training resources available to each organization employing this model.
Drone pilots in this structure should be expected to fly basic aircraft with limited options on specific use cases relative to their primary job function. Ideally any complexity that can be removed from the operation should be removed.
Pros associated with a Distributed Network
- Low training requirement for individual pilots
- High capacity possible
- No or low increase in FTEs
Cons of a Distributed Network
- Moderate or low level of pilot proficiency
- Moderate or low capability of individual pilots
- Potentially cumbersome flight approvals process
- Difficult to support from a programs standpoint
- Difficult to forecast work
- Low volume work
- Low complexity work
- Non-regulated inspections