Drone piloting proficiency takes off with a certification course


It’s a hot August day at the Maryland State Police Training Academy. The sun is shining and there is a constant buzz in the air. These are not insects – although they are certainly also in circulation – but small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), also called drones.

Dozens of officials from across the country, spanning a variety of different federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, gathered for intensive training. The “Advanced Open/Obstructed Test Monitor Course for Evaluating Drone Capabilities and Remote Pilot Skills” was developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in conjunction with the Directorate of science and technology (S&T). The objective is there in the title: to assess abilities and skills. Skilled drone piloting is essential when lives are at stake; these devices are used in many law enforcement operations, including search and rescue and counter-IED (improvised explosive device) efforts.

Drone in flight during the advanced open/obstructed test proctor course for assessing drone capabilities and remote pilot skills. Photo credit: S&T.

“We first developed these testing methods with the idea of ​​helping the government identify and test robots on the ground to ensure that we have a standardized method and that we are buying the best,” explained Kai- Dee Chu, PhD, S&T Standards Manager. “We use them to test drones for procurement purposes, and first responders have found out for themselves that these standardized test methods are even better than their training courses. So they adopted these test methods and it’s spread like wildfire, not just in the US, but now in Canada, Korea, Japan… the testing methods are used by all of these first responders.

Drone operator observed during the tests by the test monitor. Photo credit: S&T.

So far, this training has been offered three times – in California, Texas and Maryland – since its introduction in January 2022, and it has led to more than 400 certified supervisors. The next course offering will be in New Jersey in November. It consists of 24 hours of classroom and practical flight training over three days to “train the trainer”, so newly certified proctors can take what they have learned back to their home agencies and then certify their drone operators. . It’s a wonderful domino effect of increased officer expertise and increased public safety. The course follows NIST test methods that have been adopted or are being adopted by ASTM International, the National Fire Protection Association, the Airborne Public Safety Accreditation Commission, the Civil Air Patrol, and many other federal agencies. , state and local public safety. organizations.

Drone pilots receiving classroom instruction at the Maryland State Police Training Academy. Photo credit: NIST.
Map showing the regional diversity of test proctors certified by the Airborne Public Safety Association to assess pilot skills remotely. Photo credit: NIST.

“When we started, there was no scientific or prescriptive measurement infrastructure available to objectively assess drone capabilities or remote pilot skills, so we filled that void,” said Adam Jacoff, chief Project Manager for Emergency Response Robots and Chair of ASTM E54.09. Subcommittee on Response Bots. “After helping guide purchases, these standard tests then support remote pilot certification. While these drone testing methods are specifically designed to help emergency responders and public safety organizations maintain a safe operational standoff while performing extremely dangerous tasks, they also support a wide variety of commercial applications. and industrial. All pilots flying in national airspace must demonstrate that they can maintain positive control of the aircraft while performing operational tasks in complex and often hazardous environments.

Adam Jacoff, NIST Project Manager for Emergency Response Robots, explaining drone testing methods. Photo credit: S&T.

The course includes both open and obstructed test lanes, i.e. with and without line of sight, as well as realistic operational scenarios, all using established assessment standards for scoring. Flights are operated day and night so pilots can be prepared for anything. Vigorous as they are, the tests are inexpensive (using equipment such as plastic buckets available at any hardware store), easy to perform, and take less than 30 minutes. Participants learned how to build the test devices, conduct trials, and incorporate the same scoring tasks into their own training scenarios. By the end, they know everything they need to replicate the course at their home agencies.

The buckets have visual alignment cues on the inside so you know you’re safe when two buckets line up, you know you’re six feet away and you can relax for a second, and now you look inside the car and you do the job…” added Jacoff. Photo credit: S&T.
Night obstruction scenario indoors. Photo credit: NIST.
Ground test open scenario. Photo credit: NIST.
Post-test obstruction scenario. Photo credit: NIST.

One of the realistic operational scenarios participants played out in Maryland was based on a real-life early summer emergency call involving a kidnapped child and an abandoned vehicle in a rural area.

As Corporal James Lantz of the Maryland State Police said, “The scenario we’re doing there, the open area search, is basically the same scenario from a mission we did there. about two months old. We had an Amber Alert. The vehicle was found in a field… surrounded by trees and everything like that. So we can sit there and say… ‘That’s exactly what we faced. Such were the dangers we had. These are the problems we had. We replicated that here, in a controlled, testable environment that we can use to measure that these guys are capable of performing.

Drone operators were instructed to thoroughly inspect the vehicle as if looking for signs of people, weapons or even explosives inside. Participants had to take photos of the various targets hit on the car with their drone’s camera.

The targets were strategically placed to simulate how far and at what angle the operators would need to have their drones to get a sufficient view of the inside of the car. Subsequent evaluation is partly based on the images the pilots are able to capture. Photo credit: S&T.

To become certified as a proctor, participants must pass a written quiz with a mark of at least 80% and submit scores from trials they have proctored for other remote pilots. Officers work in teams of three, alternating the roles of pilot, supervisor and visual observer. The pilot maintains control of the drone, calling out every move intent before making it and calling out every bucket alignment as it smashes its way through obstacles. The supervisor notes the pilot. The visual observer maintains sight of the aircraft and surroundings, repeats the pilot’s movement intent to confirm, and announces necessary corrections and warnings.

Federal Aviation Administration Safety Representative Dave Krause operates a drone. Photo credit: S&T.
NIST Pathways participant and aeronautical engineering student Alex Fraley uses a drone. Photo credit: S&T.

As well as testing the skills of drone pilots, the course is a great way to see what drones can do. As David Battaly of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said, “It’s a practical measure of not only the skill and ability of the pilot to fly his plane, but also the capabilities of that individual plane.” There are myriad drones on the market, and each drone is a little different. So, this measures the skill of the pilot, their ability to handle their drone, and the capabilities of what their drone can actually achieve. Seeing the performance of different devices helps inform sourcing decision making so law enforcement can purchase the best tool for the job.

The course also helps manufacturers improve their products. Private companies can participate in the same training, running the same scenarios, but instead use it as an opportunity to debug their systems and see how they compare to other devices on the market. A manufacturer is able to run the evaluation process, determine what their system can do better, and identify ways to improve performance. This may mean they need sturdier optics or a more intuitive user interface so riders can use their device more easily, score higher on the course, and be more likely to recommend it to their colleagues.

Maryland State Police tent and vehicle. Photo credit: S&T.

Thanks to the easily repeatable nature of the course and the uniformity and consistency offered by the standards, drone operators across the country will be able to compare “apples to apples” when assessing abilities during a intervention. This approach encourages collaboration and ultimately leads to a safer audience.

“It’s important because we want to have certified pilots to fly these drones to ensure they operate safely and competently,” Chu added. “But more than that, it’s now that we have standards, we have common ground to talk about those capabilities. And these standards do not stagnate. We have to revise them every two or three years, but we can always have the latest and best testing methods for our operators and for our first responders. So that’s the beauty of using these international standards for these training facilities because they’re well tested, they’re well accepted, and even after we’re gone, those standards will still be there.

Standard drone test methods are expected to be accepted by ASTM by spring 2023 and the next step will be underwater test methods for aquatic robots.

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