This post is the first of a series of posts in October and early November highlighting ways to improve and support drone safety. Kittyhawk will be participating in the FAA’s Drone Safety Awareness Week in early November, so we’re taking this opportunity to focus on bringing safety information to our customers and user community. We take seriously our responsibility to share safety information and best practices with the broader UAS community, since improved safety of the NAS helps all stakeholders.

This post is designed to highlight a program that is relatively well-known in the general aviation community, but probably unknown to a lot of the UAS community. Inclusion of UAS would be a significant tool in improving the safety of UAS operations generally, and enterprise drone programs specifically. This program is the Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS), and we hope to see UAS included soon, hopefully in early 2020.

What is the ASRS?

The ASRS is a partnership between NASA and the FAA. Its purpose is to promote aviation safety by facilitating self-reporting by aviators, so that the entire community can learn from inadvertent mistakes that others make while operating in the NAS. In their own words, “The ASRS captures confidential reports, analyzes the resulting aviation safety data, and disseminates vital information to the aviation community.”

Two parts of the ASRS that could be particularly important and relevant to enterprise drone programs are the CALLBACK newsletter and limited legal immunity, both of which are explained below.

How Would UAS Inclusion in ASRS Help an Enterprise Drone Program?

Developing a Culture of Safety, Compliance, Risk Mitigation, and Constant Learning

ASRS publishes a monthly safety newsletter called CALLBACK, which “includes de-identified ASRS report excerpts with supporting commentary in a ‘lessons learned’ format”. You can find previous issues of CALLBACK in HTML and PDF formats from 1994-2018 on their website.

Many general aviation pilots find CALLBACK to be a valuable resource to improve their aeronautical decision-making. One way this proves particularly useful is that it allows pilots to put themselves in the shoes of the reporting pilot so that they can plan how to make that situation less likely to occur, and also to mitigate any damage or risk arising from that situation.

Limited Legal Immunity for Participants

Arguably the most important aspect of the ASRS is the limited legal immunity it grants to those who submit reports. These policies and processes are laid out in JO 7200.20, Advisory Circular 00-46E, and FAR 91.25.

Taken together, these policies describe the structure of the program and the roles played by the FAA, NASA, and other organizations like the NTSB. Simplified, these policies say that the FAA will not use the information submitted in ASRS reports in any enforcement action against the reporting pilot.

The ASRS grant of confidentiality and immunity comes with some basic but important caveats. Most importantly, the report must be submitted within 10 days of the event and the violation must have been inadvertent and not deliberate. Reports of criminal activity or accidents are not covered by this limited legal immunity.

Enterprise drone programs may require this limited legal immunity given to the general aviation community to participate in the ASRS in order to provide an additional level of comfort and confidence in sharing their experiences with the greater aviation community. For risk-averse organizations, this may be a prerequisite to participation. This is why if the ASRS extended this limited legal immunity to UAS operators, both recreational and commercial, and added a UAS-specific section to the ASRS, it would be a game-changer.

Kittyhawk Supports Industry-wide Safety Initiatives

Kittyhawk supports UAS inclusion in the ASRS because the system will work better with maximum participation and it will provide real-world data to drone operators and regulators so that they can make the most informed decisions possible.

Kittyhawk believes that the ASRS approach, which promotes a confidential, voluntary, and non-punitive approach to participating in a culture of safety, is the right approach to encourage maximum participation. When participants know that their reports are confidential and there is likely no legal liability for being forthcoming, they are much more likely to provide honest and timely reports. The more information that is submitted to a platform like this, the more valuable the platform becomes for all of its users.

Additional Value Enterprise Drone Operations Could Gain From an ASRS for Drones

Building a Curriculum and Safety Culture

Enterprise drone programs will be able to use information obtained by ASRS to create and improve their organization’s safety culture, including training and continuous learning. The goal would be to ensure that the organization’s policies, procedures, and culture of safety guard against repeating any of the mistakes made by others. For example, in-house learning activities that are part of a risk mitigation and compliance plan would ensure that drone operators are thinking of ways to operate more safely – and are aware of how risky situations can arise. Encouraging drone operators to think through a scenario and be able to articulate and explain their plan of action is going to be more valuable than requiring self-study and rote memorization. Further, ASRS reporting could become part of an organization’s standard operating procedures after debriefing any sort of covered incident or when planning how to respond to flight safety events.

Data-Driven Policy-Making and Training

A frequent criticism when adopting new technologies is the lack of data to explain how well a policy is working or what policies merit further exploration. Examining trends that appear as more reports are submitted to the ASRS will be a valuable source of safety information that could prove useful in further policy-making for UAS. For example, when analyzing the data, it could show that a disproportionate number of incidents occur at a specific location, a specific time of day, or due to confusion over a particular rule. Data derived from ASRS reports could inform future education initiatives, training, or policy-making at the organizational and broader aviation industry levels.