Four ATSB transport safety investigators were recently trained in the use of a new tool that will prove highly useful in future investigations.
“We don’t call them drones,” said ATSB investigator Aaron Holman. “Although that’s what lots of people know them as. For us, they’re remotely piloted aircraft or RPA.”
Holman first proposed using RPA in transport safety investigations more than five years ago.
“I envisaged a lot of potential uses for RPA in accident investigation,” Holman said.
“Much of our investigation work requires as complete a picture of the accident as possible. This includes surveying the accident site thoroughly.
“Using RPA has the potential to replace traditional site-survey techniques involving tape measures and compasses. We’ll use them to build a much more complete reconstruction of accident sites, including in 3-D.”
Instructors from Overall Photography provided training, both in theory and practice. Overall Photography has already given courses to forestry, education, and other Government organisations.
Theory covered the core components of RPA operations, aerodynamics, and safety, as well as the importance of weather and airspace considerations, and regulations that cover the RPA in Australia.
“A lot of this was familiar to our investigators,” Holman said. “But it’s very useful to have it put in the context of RPA systems.”
Practical training was conducted on an empty sports field, with a course of coloured cones laid out. A key element of the exercise was working as teams, with a spotter monitoring the surrounding environment while the pilot focussed on the RPA.
“We’re not just using spotters because we’re in an urban situation,” said Holman. “We’re expecting to use RPAs as part of our work health and safety—inspecting sites prior to sending in investigators, so they can evaluate the risks without getting in harm’s way.
“When you’re piloting an RPA, it’s easy to focus exclusively on the device, and tune out what’s going on around you.”
The ATSB investigators were using DJI Phantom 4’s—a type of RPA that the ATSB has already invested in.
“I’m really struck by how easy they are to fly,” said Holman. “There are systems in place that let anyone fly, regardless of any previous flight experience. There’s a lot of automation that makes it easy.”
This ease of use will make RPA very useful for examining points that would be inaccessible for investigators, especially elevated or precarious locations.
“The next step we’re looking at is obtaining an operator’s certificate for the organisation,” Holman said. “And we’ll be codifying in-house procedures and checklists for investigators to ensure that when these aircraft are deployed, it’s done safely and effectively.
“It’s an evolving technology, and it’s evolving fast. Things that weren’t possible a few years ago are now possible, and there’s a lot of potential for transport safety.”