Small Drones Have Big Impact for Accident Investigators

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When air safety investigators with Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council (ASC) mobilized to the island of Hoko on July 24, 2014, to find out why a TransAsia Airways ATR 72-500 crashed into residences near Magong Airport, they brought along a new tool—a ScientificAerospace quadcopter with a digital camera and inertial and altitude sensors.

Investigators with the U.K.’s Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB), who have also been deploying sUAS over the past several years, have built a flight department that includes three DJI quadcopters and standard operating procedures.

The common thread among all the organizations is the newfound utility, the small, compact and lightweight, drones can play a big role in accident investigations, both at the scene of an accident and during the data analysis that follows.

Brian Kuo, an ASC investigator, says the preprogrammed UAV survey of the crash zone took approximately 90 min. to complete, a more efficient and less costly proposition than the typical solution—hiring and equipping a helicopter for the operation.

Martin Chen, an engineer with the ASC, operated the ScientificAerospace cyberQuad Maxi quadcopter for the survey after gaining approval from the Taiwanese Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), a process that took five days. He says the CAA typically requires 14 days to process a request to fly a UAV in the region; officials in this case accelerated authorization. At Magong, he started the survey mission at 5:30 a.m. and ended it before 7:00 a.m., when scheduled service starts. “We had time pressure,” he says.

Stuart Hawkins, a senior inspector of air accident delegates to the AAIB, recently said that UAVs had so far been used in 16 crash investigations around the U.K. He adds that in the past, images had been supplied by emergency services helicopters or by hiring commercial helicopters and UAVs, but imagery would be slow to arrive and AAIB would not necessarily get the angles or shots needed, or have control of the data.

At accident sites, the AAIB uses two UAV operators, one looking at the video feed and the other controlling the quadcopter. “We decided we should always have a second person operating the camera,” says Hawkins, “because although you can fly it and operate the camera, to get good images you need heads down, and to fly the UAV safely, you need to be heads up.”

In one accident involving a microlight aircraft, the AAIB used a quadcopter to fly near trees to examine branches broken by the crash, a view unattainable with a helicopter. After the crash of a Bell Jet Ranger into cliffs off the coast of East Yorkshire in September 2014, AAIB used a quadcopter to survey the site, where it was too dangerous for investigators to inspect.

In North America, UAVs are also a high-priority enhancement for U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators, and new FAA rules currently are in discussion. A company or private individual can apply to the FAA for a Section 333 exemption to fly a drone, a governmental agency must obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA). To obtain a COA, John DeLisi, director of the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, says his agency would have to maintain a traditional flight department, with a chief pilot, director of maintenance and other roles. “We don’t operate any aircraft,” he says.

While rules sometimes change, the NTSB in the interim has briefed its investigators that commercial companies, approved through the Section 333 process, could be called in to provide a survey. “If we had a case where we felt that was a needed resource at an accident site, we could do it,” says DeLisi. However, he adds, the optimal and lowest-cost scenario would be for the NTSB to have its own drones and specially trained operators.


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