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Raising the Bar for Fire Service sUAS (Drone) Pilots

On 18 February 2018, members of the Northeast Region Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit (NERUASU) responded to a petroleum storage tank fire at a Magellan Oil Storage Facility located in West Fargo, North Dakota. The 1,980,000-gallon capacity tank was filled with 1,425,00 gallons of diesel oil. Diesel fuel oil is a non-polar/water-immiscible petroleum product. It is highly flammable, has a flashpoint of 126-204 Fahrenheit, and an auto-ignition temperature of 494F. Upon arrival, West Fargo Fire Personnel observed flaming fuel shooting out of the plumbing located near the base of the tank. NERUASU personnel utilized two small unmanned aircraft to provide continuous real-time streaming video to an on-scene mobile command post as well as an emergency operations center located several miles away from the scene.

West Fargo Fire Department's After-Action Report acknowledged the importance of having a drone on-scene: "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) – the use of the UAS Team from Grand Forks proved invaluable in this incident. It allowed remote monitoring of the tank from the Incident Command [IC] Post, allowing the unified incident commanders a bird's eye view of the tank, the fire, and any potential hazards. This contributed to the seamless transition from dike reinforcement to water supply setup and testing the water stream reach before the fire attack initiation. In the EOC, it allowed multiple agencies to view the same images simultaneously and apply their own tactical decision making. For example, Fargo-Cass Public Health was concerned about smoke plume direction, while the IC was concerned about the fire spread and the tank's integrity. In contrast, Magellan was concerned about the amount of runoff from a possible leak. The use of the live feed cut down on progress reports from the IC at the EOC."

The utilization of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) by U.S. fire departments has grown exponentially over the last six years. In 2014 less than 12 agencies had acquired sUAS. Today, an estimated 566 fire departments and an estimated 1,134 law enforcement agencies and search and rescue teams, are using sUAS. Several factors affected this growth, including the cost-effectiveness of the technology when compared to traditional manned aircraft; a general realization that drone use is not inherently an invasion of people's privacy; and the Federal Aviation Administration's enactment, in August of 2016, of 14 CFR Part 107, "The Small UAS Rule." Part 107 created drone-specific regulations, including a new FAA pilot certificate: Remote Pilot. Interestingly, an individual can obtain an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate without ever having flown an sUAS as the certificate only requires the passing of a 60-question knowledge exam.

Flying safely in our national air space requires knowledge and skill. While the FAA's Remote Pilot Examination is a good evaluation of remote pilot knowledge, the lack of a practical examination leaves a void that potentially increases the liability exposure of individuals and agencies using sUAS. There is a clear need for an accompanying skills evaluation to ensure the remote pilot's safety, bystanders, property, and manned aircraft in the area.

According to Adam Jacoff, a project manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), "The first step toward credentialing remote pilot skills is to get everybody onto the same measuring stick. That's where standard test methods can play a key role. Especially across public safety, industrial, commercial, and even recreational pilots. All need to demonstrate essential maneuvers to maintain positive aircraft control while performing whatever payload functionality is necessary to perform the intended tasks successfully."

Adam Jacoff is leading an international effort to develop standard test methods for small unmanned aircraft systems. The initial suites for Maneuvering and Payload Functionality can be used to evaluate various system capabilities and remote pilot proficiency quantitatively. They are being standardized through the ASTM International Standards Committee on Homeland Security Applications; Response Robots (ASTM E54.09). They also are referenced as Job Performance Requirements in the National Fire Protection Association Standard for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Used For Public Safety Operations (NFPA 2400) and the ASTM Standard Guide for Training for Remote Pilot in Command of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Endorsement (ASTM F38.03 F3266-18). The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate has been supporting the development of these tests, as well as many more tests currently being validated.

Participants in NIST's test method validation exercises learn how to fabricate apparatuses, conduct trials, and embed them into their own training and credentialing programs. While participating in one of NIST's exercises, I first realized the potential of these test methods. I was greatly impressed by the potential for agencies that wish to internally credential sUAS pilots or serve as a credentialing resource for others. The NIST test methods are already being used as the basis for state-wide credentialing of emergency responders in Colorado and Texas. Many other state and local emergency response organizations also are adopting the test methods. Canada is moving quickly to implement these tests as the basis for credentialing their emergency responders nationwide. Others will undoubtedly follow. The Airborne Public Safety Accreditation Commission (APSAC) is strongly considering their adoption, as is the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Force, as they seek to standardize their pilot credentialing across 52 wings consisting of over 1,200 sUAS pilots.

Ben Miller, Director of the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, has followed NIST's sUAS Standard Test Methods project from the inception. "NIST was one of the very first evaluation groups to show interest during the early days of UAS in public safety. The rigor that today's Standard Test Methods show is a direct result of their years of work into the project. The applicability of the method supports acquisition decisions as well as employment considerations. The NIST sUAS Standard Test Methods produce data that can be used to answer the questions of what system do I buy and what system do I use for which mission?"

The NIST sUAS Test Methods include four different "test lanes": Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilots (Part 107 qualification); Open Test Lane; Obstructed Test Lane; and Confined Test Lane. These test methods can all be used to evaluate sUAS capabilities and sensor systems or remote pilot proficiency for credentialing. The tests are easy to conduct alone or in groups and inexpensive enough to set up multiple concurrent lanes.

The Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilots (BPERP) is the entry-level test method. It is designed to complement the Federal Aviation Administration's Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate by providing an inexpensive, easily duplicatable, mechanism for assessing remote pilot flying skills. The BPERP can be administered in 10 minutes utilizing three omni bucket stands, a 50' tape measure, and a stopwatch. The BPERP requires a compact test area of 50' x 20', so it can easily be administered indoors or outdoors. The BPERP requires the remote pilot to conduct three takeoffs and landings from a 12" radius circle, climb to specified altitudes of 10' and 20' AGL, conduct yawing turns, and conduct forward, reverse, and transverse flight maneuvers. The goal is to capture still images of 36 targets placed within two-gallon buckets that are fastened to three omni bucket test stands constructed from 2" x 4" and 4" x 4" lumber. The bucket stands are easy to assemble and can be transported in a couple of nylon golf club bags or simply stacked and placed in a vehicle. The test consists of one maneuvering phase and two transverse flight phases. Pilots earn one point for each accurately captured target image, two points for an accurate first landing, and one point each for accurate second and third landings. Scoring sheets are available from NIST. Agencies set their own benchmark scores for passing the test.

The NIST sUAS Standard Test Methods can provide the missing practical test element in every organization's sUAS program. Implementation of a robust sUAS practical skills test will raise the sUAS unit pilots' professionalism, provide them with increasing difficulty exercises to master and provide additional insulation from liability by demonstrating agency and pilot due-diligence in achieving an adequate level of sUAS pilot skills. The author encourages fire service agencies to explore NIST's sUAS Standard Test Methods further and consider incorporating them into training and pilot credentialing programs. Further information can be obtained at the NIST website, and the Airborne Public Safety Association will be offering several three days NIST sUAS Standard Test Methods "Train-the-Trainer". Completing that course would be an excellent way to become familiar with the NIST sUAS Standard Test Methods.


Alan Frazier currently serves as a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University. He works with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to validate and implement these and other test methods with any interested public safety organization.

He hosts "train-the-trainer" workshops and exercises to help such organizations get started. He is also involved in developing and validating new test methods for sUAS. Alan previously served as an Associate Professor of Aviation at the University of North Dakota. He is a 40-year law enforcement professional, having served as a sworn officer and supervisor with city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. He founded and served ten years as the officer-in-charge of the Northeast Regional sUAS Team in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He is an FAA Airline Transport Pilot rated to fly single- and multi-engine airplanes, helicopters, gliders, and small unmanned aircraft systems.


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