Last weekend Sky Horse Tech participated in a large active shooter drill in Phillipsburg, NJ. This drill had first responders from all over NJ and eastern PA along with Homeland Security, State Police, State OEM and many other organizations. The various levels of participants meant numerous forms of communication, both literally and figuratively. The state police were on one radio frequency, while fire/rescue and EMS on others. Local police were using their everyday frequencies to communicate with each other.
The Sky Horse drone team needed to monitor these channels in order to know a) when the drill was actually beginning, b) when each ‘wave’ of police, fire/rescue, ambulance groups were incoming and c) most importantly, when the State Police medivac was inbound so we could ground the drone. Note that technically, according to FAA Part 107 rules we didn’t need to completely ground the drone when the chopper was inbound (it’s landing zone was on the other side of the high school campus), however to give peace of mind to everyone involved we gladly complied with that request.
It’s always a good idea to have a solid radio to monitor channels at any job, whether it’s air traffic control communication around airports, fire/rescue/police, construction, etc. You may need 2 or 3 different types of radios to reach that broad spectrum over different projects. Luckily, the communications director at the drill was able to provide us with a radio pre-programmed to the various frequencies being used that day. When the state police medivac was inbound, we did not hear their broadcast but we received a notification on a separate channel when it was relayed to us.
Radio comm wasn’t the most difficult or complicated part of this job by far, that honor went to technical glitches and overcoming them. Anyone who has flown a drone (or owned a cell phone) knows that glitches, hiccups and bugs are commonplace. Murphy’s Law, however, dictates that the magnitude of glitches is directly proportionate to the importance of the job at hand. The chief pilot performed a test run with the drone at the exact same location two days prior to the drill without a hint of a problem. The drone team arrived two hours early on the day of the drill to make sure everything was in place. There were a couple of warmup flights about an hour before the drill was to begin, no issues. Fast forward to T-minus 10 minutes and the gremlins awoke.
First, the cell phone connected to the P4P controller began to reboot on it’s own. That happens, no big deal, hopefully it doesn’t happen in the middle of a flight but even then it’s not a deal breaker. Next, we noticed that the phone/controller and UAS were not communicating. Restart DJI Go 4, still nothing. Meanwhile, the phone is rebooting about a minute after it finishes the prior reboot. The team talks it over and the consensus seemed to be the heat was taking it’s toll. The warmup flights and hot, humid ambient air had combined to bring our setup to its knees.
At this point with a few minutes to go the chief drill coordinator with the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office visited our table to confirm we were ready to go asap. While talking with her we were switching out the phone but there was one additional problem: the live feed stream was only setup on the original phone that was on the fritz. Luckily, we had IM’d the assistant pilot the RMTP url for the live feed about an hour earlier. That url was quickly copy/pasted into the DJI Go 4 app on the backup phone and we were able to view on the nearby laptop that the live feed was viewable. A huge feeling of relief at this point for everyone on the team.
If our setup wasn’t ready or wasn’t working, they wouldn’t have held up the entire exercise while we figured it out. We would have been standing there with the drone sitting on the ground while police cars, fire trucks and ambulances sped by.
This brings up the valuable concept of redundancy in relation to readiness. For any critical piece of equipment in your plan, there needs to be at least two of each somewhere on site. Maybe your high voltage power line inspection requires your Matrice 210 RTK but you don’t have two of those laying around, that is understandable. However, everything else could and should have a backup, everything from your phone/tablet down to the $8 USB cable that your controller needs to speak with your tablet.
Days before your actual flight, go through the list of every piece of equipment that you’ll be using on that site. Ask yourself: What would happen if X fails or breaks while the project is in progress? If the cost-to-need ratio is right then acquire a backup without hesitating.
Murphy’s Law will always exist, hopefully you can always stay one step ahead of it.
Video excerpts from Sky Horse Tech at the active shooter drill: