DJI Battery Failures highlight the need for rigorous Safety Management Systems (SMS)

DJI issued two press releases regarding in-flight power losses on aircraft using their TB50 & TB55 intelligent flight batteries

During the last week in October 2018, DJI issued two press releases regarding in-flight power losses on aircraft using their TB50 & TB55 intelligent flight batteries:

DJI Advises Customers To Fly With Caution When Using TB50 And TB55 Batteries In Drones

DJI Reviewing Reports Of Power Issues With M200 Series Drones

Unfortunately for the RPAS operators, these power issues led to aircraft losses; thankfully there was no reported injuries or property damage. The failures of the power systems in professional and enterprise-level machines highlight the fact that remotely piloted aircraft do have failures, regardless of their price range, and that operators have to be vigilant to ensure the safety of their operations, even in the event of an unlikely system failure.

The incidents occurred in the UK where the local aviation regulator, the CAA, was quick to release a Safety Notice advising operators of the issue and providing guidance on continued operations. While likely only a matter of time, CASA and the ATSB are yet to provide remotely piloted aircraft operators in Australia with guidance following the failures; this provides a timely reminder that operators in Australia cannot simply sit back and wait for instruction from regulating bodies. It is incumbent on each operator to put in place a rigorous Safety Management System (SMS) to ensure that when an incident occurs the impact of the incident is minimised.

DJI Matrice 200 battery

Safety Management Systems for commercial drone operations

Safety Management Systems (SMS) has been an integral part of piloted aviation for several decades and is one of the key reasons piloted aviation has such a terrific safety record. The international aviation community define a SMS as ‘a systematic approach to managing safety, including organisational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures. It is more than a manual and a set of procedures and requires safety management to be integrated into the day to day activities of the organisation. It requires the development of an organisational culture that reflects the safety policy and objectives.’ The UK CAA has published a good overview of SMS titled Safety Management Systems (SMS) guidance for organisations.

While having a SMS is not mandatory for commercial drone operations in Australia, they are a key part of managing liability. Part of every good SMS is a strong reporting culture. Not only is reporting good practice, in Australia it is a legislative requirement. External reporting provides the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) with the required data to pick up failure trends and identify design and operational defects. It is this type of data that facilitated the Safety Notice release by the CAA. It is worth noting that the ATSB is not a regulatory body and does not take action against an operator where an investigation indicates operator fault. Indeed, the penalty for failure to report an incident/accident is generally far greater than any action CASA may take should they become aware of an incident/accident.

Internal reporting allows the operator’s safety team to make appropriate operational changes to ensure the safety of operations and in many cases ensures defects and deficiencies are rectified before an incident occurs. Safety teams should have regular meetings that are held in an open, unconfrontational, manner to allow the team to proactively discuss safety issues. This facilitates ownership of safety outcomes which in turn creates a safer and more efficient operation.

Hand in hand with internal reporting is internal monitoring. Take battery logging for example, if a RPAS organisation inputs data from every flight into a trend monitoring platform, performance of both aircraft and battery can be easily reviewed. This allows an RPAS organisation to create drone operational intelligence.

Graphing this data systematically, which allows batteries to be removed from service any time performance is degraded of the battery reaches the cycle life impose based on our historic data.  As highlighted by the recent incidents, reliance on the batteries onboard monitoring system (if it has one), for fault finding, may be insufficient, and operator trend monitoring is essential.

If you are ready to commit to a formal SMS, or just want to better understand how a SMS would benefit your operation, get in contact with any of the Aviassist team. We all have a long history in SMS, gained in high risk piloted aviation activities, and would be pleased to help you improve the safety of your operation and avoid unnecessary and costly incidents.

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