Standard tests are available to evaluate pilots, equipment.

With the significant benefits of far lower operating costs and reduced risk to operational personnel, small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) will play an increasingly large role in public safety and professional applications. But before they can, a national standardized process for evaluating the remote skills of sUAS pilots must be defined and implemented.

Currently, US operators must possess an FAA remote pilot certificate to operate a commercial sUAS. The FAA’s remote pilot exam covers a broad spectrum of topics, but interestingly—and some would say disturbingly—it includes no practical exam. Consequently, we have no national standard for remote pilot flying skills.

While the FAA exam provides a good evaluation of remote pilot knowledge, including critical subjects such as airspace and communications, the lack of a practical exam leaves a void that potentially increases the liability exposure of individuals and entities using sUAS. Enter NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a nonregulatory US agency.

NIST has created a set of standard test methods for organizations seeking to credential sUAS pilots or evaluate sUAS equipment. These test methods, which are being standardized through ASTM International, encompass four “test lane” protocols: Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilots (BPERP); Open Test Lane; Obstructed Test Lane; and Confined Test Lane. They are easily performed using materials readily available at any large hardware store.

After seeing the potential of these tests while participating in a NIST exercise, I was greatly impressed by their promise for agencies seeking to internally credential sUAS pilots or serve as a credentialing resource for others. The test methods are already being used as the basis for statewide credentialing of emergency responders in Colorado and Texas, and many other state and local emergency response organizations, as well as Canada, also are utilizing them.

For a look at what all the excitement is about, let’s discuss the most basic of the four test methods, the BPERP. It can be administered in 10 minutes using three omni bucket stands, a 50-ft. tape measure, a stopwatch, and a test area of 50 ft. by 20 ft.

During the BPERP, the remote pilot must conduct takeoffs and landings from and to a 12-in.–radius circle, climb to specified altitudes of 10 ft. and 20 ft. agl, and conduct yawing turns as well as forward, reverse, and traverse flight maneuvers. The goal is to capture still images of 36 targets placed within 2-gal. buckets fastened to short test stands constructed from 2-by-4 and 4-by-4 lumber. The test consists of one maneuvering phase and two traverse flight phases. Agencies set their own benchmark scores for passing the test.

I’ve had the opportunity to administer the BPERP to both novice and experienced remote pilots. The test methods were unanimously endorsed by every pilot I’ve run through the course.

The NIST test methods represent an excellent way for organizations to raise the bar on their remote pilot credentialing and sUAS equipment evaluation. Their adoption also promises to fill the void created by the absence of an FAA remote pilot practical examination and further mitigate risk in the areas of sUAS accident prevention and civil liability defense.

Over the next two years, the Airborne Public Safety Association will be presenting several NIST sUAS Standard Test Methods Train-the-Trainer workshops. The four-hour complimentary virtual introductory courses and the tuition-based three-day in-person certification course are appropriate for experienced sUAS pilots who serve as trainers. They are also suitable for supervisors and managers within sUAS units. I highly recommend them.

Author

  • Alan Frazier currently serves as a senior fellow at Georgetown University. He is assigned full time to NIST, where he works to develop sUAS standard test methods. A 40-year law enforcement professional, Al is an airline transport pilot rated to fly single- and multiengine airplanes, helicopters, gliders, and sUAS.

Alan Frazier

Alan Frazier

Alan Frazier currently serves as a senior fellow at Georgetown University. He is assigned full time to NIST, where he works to develop sUAS standard test methods. A 40-year law enforcement professional, Al is an airline transport pilot rated to fly single- and multiengine airplanes, helicopters, gliders, and sUAS.

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