When the accounting-minded person in your meeting frowns and holds up a finger, the idea of flying drones in-house to save money comes under scrutiny—scrutiny that turns up dangers lurking under every rock. Who knew it cost that much to get insurance for a few fly-over shots? And what was that nonsense about 19 kinds of government paperwork?
While our scenario may over-dramatize things, we do know companies that found out the hard way that flying their own drones was a minefield not worth stepping into. My Drone Services often finds out what happened because those companies come to us after the in-house attempt.
So, is the fabled “break-even” point within reach, and does it ever make sense to pull drone flights in-house? Our best response to that question is that the scale of your operations will determine the answer. We’re always here to chat with you about the issues and can help you get a grip on the idea.
For somewhat more complex operations, hiring a good outside contractor is an obvious winning plan that will plainly save thousands – or tens of thousands – over time. The outside operator has everything ready to fly and is well-prepared while building up any such capacity in-house for just a few hours a week of flight will cost a small fortune.
But when is the operation small enough to justify tackling projects on your own?
The “scale-of-your-operation” answer gets complicated quickly by details hiding out of sight. The real cost of ownership and operation entails more than seems apparent at first, perhaps especially when the task seems simple at first glance.
The difference between a pro and an amateur is how they handle events when things go wrong. Standing at a mission crash site is not the time or place to find out what can go wrong.
Mail ordering a camera drone is the easy part. And, OK, you can hope that the guy holding up a finger in your meetings can get a handle on the regulations and paper work. But who’s going to fly it? We hope you have that issue covered before you get started, but, hold on, there’s more…
…who in the company understands drone maintenance? Who can keep FAA-required flight logs properly and knows how to run software packages like Skyward and Drone Deploy? Oh, and did you remember to get the right sensors and software for your mission? Can you upgrade that thing when you need to and can you adjust your set-up to match project needs on the fly? Can you interpret an infrared image at need or build a 3D model of your flight and map it?
ie – There will be time spent getting up to speed and all of that time will be fraught with delay and learning curves.
More to the point – and a much larger decision factor – what happens when the seemingly tiny risk video fly-over crashes and burns spectacularly? What if the smash-up is bad enough to involve the legal team? That’s the “uh-oh” moment we hope to never see, but it does happen in a notable number of cases. If you fly often enough, something will inevitably go wrong.
Not Failing in Grand Style
Risk comes in many flavors, granted, and on the surface it would seem most “day-to-day” risks will be easy to deal with. A simple “surprise ending” crash might mean replacing a fairly cheap drone, something many companies are willing to risk. But unexpected risk factors often yield more complex after-the-fact issues and it is these trickle-down, ripple-effect issues we hope to help you understand and avoid.
Our central deciding recommendation will most often boil down to the concept that teaming with a drones services company means not failing in a big way… ever. Certainly, failure is always possible no matter how the project gets done or who is on the controls, but if you hire it all out your corporate tush will be mostly covered by a very big frying pan; failure X was that guy’s fault, not yours.
No matter how unlikely the outcome, from a wrecked rose bush to a power grid black-out, the insurance and legal mess belongs first to the independent contractor. If the little look-down project pilot flies his drone into a low-flying airliner, it’s not your fault.
Generally, risk is minimal starting from the moment you hire a professional pilot.
When a hired pilot fails most of the annoying post-crash issues start to fall in their lap; the fault, the insurance mess, loss of equipment and more. While the company may lose time, at least the overall losses are cut. The bad day can be erased and the job re-hired, even if you stay with the same pilot.
Unexpected results are sometimes, rarely, spectacularly out of scale badness, and “really bad” happens when something that seemed straight-forward turns out to be entirely dangerous, perhaps for something as simple as a gust of wind in that particular spot.
Nine Kinds of Trouble
While some flights might be fairly risk-free, many company drone jobs have some special need, some special situation a hobbyist simply never deals with, and that translates into “much greater risk”— our titled “nine kinds of trouble”.
From the start, hobbyist UAV pilots in most developed countries are not legally allowed to hire out commercially without proper licensing, but the risk associated with hiring even “qualified” UAV operators extends past a simple certificate. Does the pilot have multiple good certifications from good schools? Great insurance? What about back-up systems, dedicated software, and specialized hardware? If all that falls into place, experience doing the kind of thing you need might be the deciding factor between vendors, but we hope you can see that the list of deciding factors is not short.
Given the longer-than-expected list of issues, consider outsourcing all that you can; the better the company, the better the gear they’ll fly, the deeper and wider their experience, the better their software and analysis, and the better their insurance, etc.
The List of Stuff that has to be addressed can always get longer, too, and it’s the experienced pro who will cover them all for you in the best way possible because doing so has always been part of their job. Your experienced pro will have a very deep and well-thought-out checklist for every contingency.
Does your job require precision flying in tight quarters to do special kinds of inspections? Flying in bad weather? Flying over populated areas? Flying near cell towers or oil rigs will require additional special certifications as well. Tough or unusual tasks for the pilot hugely increase the risk of a crash and that risk certainly could boil down to explosive bottom-line costs, often in more than one way.
Pilots in their first years of flight are, shall we say, contra-indicated. As commercial airline flights have shown over the years even the best pilot can screw up, but you might as well get the best pilot you can find.
Industry terminology refers to crashes as “loss of control” incidents, which sounds dry and analytical until you get a bill not just from the owner of the property your pilot dropped the drone on, but from their legal representative, plus the FAA and the city and/or the county. (One might say that having your drone operator carry heavy-hitter professional certifications and insurance is good for reasons you hope to never encounter.)
Little imagination is required to find worst-case outcomes from drone missions gone awry: Drone hits a power line, explodes, blacks out the town. Drone falls in the intersection, distracts driver, the driver swerves head-on into an oncoming truck.
The legal and accounting departments will not be pleased. Officers of the court will want to know that you did everything possible to avoid a bad outcome, that your company did the “correct and responsible things” at every step.
Such spectacularly bad scenarios, though rare, only serve to highlight to “unseen” benefits of hiring it all out. We’ve put a small section about Liability and Insurance at the end of the article to wrap up some conclusions.
White Hat Heroes Save the Day, Every Day
If you decide to proceed with an in-house drone approach, we’d love to talk you through it. You shouldn’t jump in completely cold, plus of course, we hope to be there to catch you when you feel the need for an outside helping hand.
Bottom line: Aim for the best pro pilot you can afford. You won’t be wasting your money!
We hope that you’ll consider that the daily grind of professional drone flight is no different from the accumulation of any expertise. A deeply experienced professional pilot or team of mission pros brings more than skill and gear to the table; they bring the habits of daily and regular success with them.
These are the folks who know how to make an inevitable crack up happen under the best circumstances available, out of sheer habit, and simply because they have faced such problems before.
Would it be wrong to say the “old hat” pro can fly your missions with an eye patch and one hand tied behind his back? Perhaps we could compare DIY/first-year pros vs. Experienced Pro drone missions to the experienced chess player who smiles and offers the new opponent a free piece or more time to think; the outcome of such offers are decided before the game is offered.
Pounds, Euros, Dollars and Sense
The budget issue is a project-by-project, one step at a time conversation that My Drone Services welcome. Our goal is to get you the best result for the best budget, anywhere in the world, and at any time.
Actual costs for the smallest drone flights hired out for a company video mostly run less than the cost of an inexpensive drone. More complex projects with specialized gear and custom software plus teams of specialists to analyse data can total more than some small companies are worth.
Liability and Insurance – Conclusions
Given all the possibilities, we’re forced to admit that liability issues are a potential mess no matter what you do. The primary cautionary advice we tend to give is “outsource everything and check their insurance policy—and then check your own insurance, too”.
We think of an outsourced drone company as simply another layer of protection for you, so naturally, the quality of that outsourced service also comes into play on the liability issue. In any case, this “added layer of protection” can still prove to be insufficient. While outsourcing should shift much of the burden for insurance to the pilot, we therefore still recommend that your company be fully covered for this kind of liability.
Because extreme outcomes are at least theoretically possible and because any “extreme” outcome could seriously endanger your company, we fall back on the idea that you can’t be too careful in the insurance department no matter how you decide to proceed. an outsourced pilot’s insurance may not prove to be enough even to protect the pilot, and small drone vendors have indeed been driven out of business over insurance failures.
When Bigger is Better
In the worst cases, even large drone operators with great insurance can leave the client (you) in the line of fire, and this thought points us to a conclusion:
Because in the end, your company may have to accept the liability for a bad crack-up, the level of expertise (proven track record) plus an up-front proof of strong insurance may actually become a deciding factor in how you choose a vendor. Liability is very often a legally entangled mess, so the better your vendor the better your chances of weathering a storm of unintended consequences.
Furthermore, the more intensely you scrutinize your own liability insurance, the better.
Find out more about My Drone Services and how we can alleviate the risks and pressures of drone operations.
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