Going to the TOP with AUVSI's Trusted Operator Program
AUVSI is about to give unmanned aircraft systems operators a way to increase their safety and boost their standing in a burgeoning marketplace, through the new Trusted Operator Program (TOP).
Becoming a commercial drone pilot and operating a UAS represents an exciting and rewarding career in a dynamic and emerging industry, but from a regulatory perspective, there is little required for the commercial drone operator to demonstrate competency or proficiency in his or her operations. There are training courses available to the prospective drone pilot, however, so far there has been no industry unification with respect to remote pilot competency training or testing programs.
“This affects the end users of drone-enabled services, as there was no clear mechanism to ensure that the customer is going to receive what they believe they are paying for,” says Tracy Lamb, AUVSI’s vice president of regulatory and safety affairs and chief pilot.
For example, “public safety agencies had no way of knowing the level of knowledge or experience of the volunteer remote pilots that offered to help in natural disaster and for search and rescue operations.”
AUVSI has worked with industry experts to create TOP, to raise the trust and acceptance of the use of unmanned aircraft around the world. TOP is a professional unmanned systems community initiative aimed at supporting industry accepted remote pilot standards and protocols, which will result in the safe and sustainable advancement of the industry.
Under the program, UAS operators will be able to achieve three levels of certification. Each is a series of checklists of practices, skills and competencies “that all professional remote pilots and operators should follow, no matter in what part of the world they operate,” Lamb says.
TOP uses a set of protocols from many relevant standards from such bodies as ICAO, ANSI, SAE, ASTM, NIST and others. It also includes aviation regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration, Civil Aviation Safety Authorities, Directorates General of Civil Aviation and others.
“There are many standards that are applicable to UAS operations,” Lamb says. “How do you know which ones to follow, and when do you follow them?”
All three TOP levels are aimed at both individual remote pilots and commercial UAS organizations. Each level of certification reflects the level of skills, qualifications, knowledge and safety protocols require to operate in different industries.
Level one covers relatively low-risk operations for flights under Part 107 FAA restrictions that don’t require a waiver, such as flights during the day, below 400 feet and away from people. Level two would be suitable for companies that want to conduct flights near expensive infrastructure, such as power lines or wind turbines, or any operation that would require an FAA waiver.
Level three would address flights in “safety critical” environments, such as near chemical, oil, gas, nuclear or mining facilities, even if they are offshore and no waiver is required.
“TOP Operator level three is the highest level to which a professional remote pilot or commercial organization can be certified,” Lamb says. “An organization at this level would follow a more comprehensive set of standards, and their remote pilots would have demonstrated flight proficiency and competencies to this level.”
For example, a Realtor who wanted to become a level one TOP Operator would contact a TOP training provider (listed on the AUVSI website) who would then supply the Protocols Certification Manual and guide the student through the required learning to gain both their remote pilot certificate under the FAA’s Part 107, as well as the TOP level one remote pilot certificate.
If the Realtor already had a Part 107 remote pilot certificate and had taken a training course, they could contact a TOP certifying body, who would provide the certification manual, verify their records and then issue the TOP level one certificate.
The TOP Certification Manual has checklists for both individuals and companies. For instance, a company might need to check that they have a designated “responsible person” for all UAS operations, whereas an individual would be that person. Both would need to verify that they maintain their aircraft and know the airspace they are flying in, as well as monitoring their surroundings and the weather.
The TOP program will operate this way: AUVSI authorizes the certification bodies, such as SGS, National UAS Credentialing Program (NUASCP), Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA), Praxis Aerospace Concepts International (PACI) and ARGUS. They then audit the training organizations, such as DARTDrones, the Flight Safety Institute, Embry-Riddle, Praxis, Consortiq and more, who then train the operators to the TOP certification.
TOP’s inception was a direct result of the inaugural 2017 AUVSI Remote Pilots Council (RPC) meetings held in several locations across the nation where experts gathered to address issues within the industry. Much of the feedback from RPC members and other remote pilots licensed by the FAA concerned a lack of agreement with industry accepted operational and competency standards.
Attendees agreed that a program like TOP needed to be implemented by industry consensus as soon as possible. RPC members raised concerns that if TOP was not established, the lack of unified consensus on training protocols may lead to substandard products and a distorted view by clients and the public of the usability and benefits of drone-enabled services. The TOP Steering Committee was formed, with participation of more than 170 subject matter experts and individuals from 50-plus organizations around the world.
As the program rolls out, more details will be available on the TOP web page: https://www.auvsi.org/rpc-top.
“Becoming a TOP Operator will inspire confidence in the clients for both individual remote pilots and companies using UAS,” Lamb says. “It provides a recognized vetting process to ensure safety, reliability, professionalism, and most importantly, create an atmosphere of trust.”
Below: AUVSI's Tracy Lamb takes her TOP Level 3 certification. Photo: Tracy Lamb