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Risk Management and Decision Making in Agricultural Drone Spraying

Drones are a game-changer in the world of agricultural technology. This article discusses the important parts of aeronautical decision making (ADM) and risk management in farming drone operations. We will discuss how we apply those important concepts from the FAA and pilot worlds to our drone spraying operations.

Understanding Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM)

ADM is a methodical approach to the mental process that pilots use to consistently choose the best course of action in response to a specific set of circumstances. ADM involves a series of steps:

  1. Identifying Personal Attitudes Hazardous to Safe Flight: Recognizing attitudes that can interfere with decision-making, such as impulsiveness or invulnerability, is crucial. We have to maintain a focus on safety as a priority and keep our egos in check.

  2. Recognizing and Coping with Stress: Stress management is vital. Stress can cloud good judgment and cause poor decision-making. The most common stressors are time pressure (trying to get too much done too quickly) and stress caused by hazards (like obstacles in a field). Managing those stressors with proper pre-mission planning allows us to make better decisions on the ground.

  3. Making Sound and Timely Decisions: This involves gathering information, understanding the implications, considering alternatives, and making informed choices. The most important factor here is preparation. By properly planning for a mission (including mapping out the area ahead of time), we can have all the information we need to make good decisions.

Risk Management in UAS Operations: Risk management in UAS operations involves identifying potential hazards and implementing strategies to mitigate them. This includes:

  1. Flight Restrictions and Airspace Management: Understanding and adhering to FAA regulations is paramount. We always check sectional charts (maps that show important features for aircraft) for airspace restrictions before we commit to work. The risk we pose to other aircraft is inherently negligible because our spraying drones generally fly below 12 feet high.

  2. Chemical Drift and Hazards: Careful planning is required to prevent chemical drift. This is one of the most important risks we plan for. This involves understanding wind patterns, chemical properties, and using effective spraying techniques. Checking the weather and planning to spray on days with low wind is crucial.

  3. Equipment Maintenance and Checks: Regular maintenance and pre-flight checks ensure the drone is in optimal condition, reducing the risk of malfunctions during operations.

  4. Obstacles and path planning: Another crucial factor for risk management is planning to avoid obstacles. The radar system on our DJI T-40 is excellent, but it does have limitations. The drone will automatically stop to avoid any obstacles, but it cannot see very thin wires or branches. Because of this, we always scout out fields before we spray by flying a small drone to create a map of the area and walking the boundaries to identify any wires or other obstacles. We then plan our flight routes to avoid those obstacles.

Unique Human Factors Challenges: Human factors are an important aspect of all flight operations. Spraying crops with drones still requires a skilled human. Some of the factors to consider include:

  1. Cognitive Load: Managing the cognitive demands of simultaneously operating the drone, monitoring its systems, and ensuring adherence to flight paths and spraying patterns is difficult. There are many variables to track and systems to keep running at the same time. Having a second person to function as a visual observer is a crucial part of managing this load.

  2. Situational Awareness: Maintaining awareness of the drone’s position, the environment, and any unforeseen obstacles or changes in conditions is crucial. Anything that limits situational awareness can lead to a crash. This is why we never want to attempt to do other tasks (including talking with the client on-site) while the drone is in the air.

  3. Decision Fatigue: Long hours of operation can lead to decision fatigue. Thankfully, the automation in the drone reduces this load and allows us to consistently make good decisions.

Personal Reflections on ADM and Risk Management: In my journey as a drone operator in agriculture, several aspects of ADM and risk management have stood out:

  1. The Importance of Pre-Flight Planning: Comprehensive planning is the cornerstone of safe and effective drone operations. This includes checking weather conditions, understanding the terrain, and meticulously planning the flight path. We insist on thorough planning, including mapping out the entire area with our DJI Mavic drones, before we fly a spray mission.

  2. Adaptability: The ability to adapt to changing conditions and unexpected challenges is crucial. This might involve altering flight plans in response to weather changes or technical issues. Being an expert pilot is crucial. There are often areas of a field where automated flight modes will not work or will not be safe (such as small corridors or areas near power lines). Pilots must be able to adapt the mission plan to fit the conditions.

  3. Continuous Learning: Because our business operates at the intersection of aerospace, robotics, engineering, and agriculture, there are always new things to learn. We believe in constantly learning new things, including designing and building our own robotics projects, so that we are constantly pushing ourselves to excellence.

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