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Drones: the invaluable project management tool…with a risk

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Project managers can benefit enormously from drone technology. For example, the ability of a drone to provide real-time images of construction projects offers a quick and easy way of communicating progress to clients and stakeholders. Whilst there are benefits to drones there are also risks that are important for project managers to consider. And without adequate knowledge of these risks, you may inadvertently fall foul of existing regulations – or industrial espionage on an epic scale.

In recent years drone technology has come in leaps and bounds. This has been a good thing. Drones can benefit projects over a wide range of disciplines, for example there was a UK Government sponsored aid project in Mozambique (April 2019) to help with the disaster following Cyclone Idai. Professional drone operators using both fixed wing and rotary drones have been tasked to support and aid teams in the flood ravished areas of the country. Drones are cheap to operate and capable of operating in difficult and dangerous environments. They can also be expendable where other more expensive options including helicopters or light aircrafts are not.

But at the same time we have also seen new risks – most recently the disruption caused by drones in and around UK airports. This in turn has led to a review of the existing rules and regulations. Among the many rules associated with drones here are a few from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA):

  • “A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property”.
  • Without permission from the CAA a small aircraft "must not fly more than 400 feet above the surface".
  • With some exceptions “the remote pilot of a small unmanned aircraft must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft”.
  • To fly a drone for commercial gain the operator must have a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) from the CAA.

To be fully compliant to fly a drone for commercial gain a drone pilot must undertake an approved course that includes airspace theory, flight planning, and a practical flight assessment. To be the Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA) Operator, the ‘business’, requires the creation of an Operations Manual. After approval from the CAA, the Ops Manual becomes the bible for how the drone can be operated.

Companies must develop a PfCO and Ops Manual that is tailored to the operational nature of the organisation. For large projects the project manager may employ additional drone pilots that conduct their operations under the Ops Manual of the company. These measures ensure that people, properties and organisations are in safer hands when drones are being used.

Then there are the unseen risks. Drones can be used as a way that could easily compromise clients, with sensitive data captured and leaked to competitors. Although this type of subterfuge is rare, it still poses a real risk that could ultimately end up costing millions in lost intellectual property. For example, there is newly developed onboard technology to test the resilience of a company’s IT system. If this technology is currently developed for the good; soon it may be followed by someone with different intentions. The other problem could be that it may be difficult to know that a system had been compromised due to the passive nature of the attack. As a project manager who's managing all aspects of the project, it certainly pays to be aware of how data is being captured, how it is being used and how it is being shared.

As drone technology continues to drive forward and government authorities try to keep up with legislation to ensure the safe operation of drones, there remains an element of risk that project managers should consider to overcome potential dangers. By understanding the capabilities of drones you may then understand the risks that they may pose to your project from those who may not share your goals.

Image: kckate16/


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