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Flying experimental drones in America's oldest football stadium

 

Background & Context

In order to create a drone program that is safe, legal, and effective for a client, Aerotas follows a five step process:

1) Select drone hardware
2) Select drone software
3) Implement drone procedures
4) Select drone insurance
5) Understand drone regulations

Most of our clients are creating long-running drone programs for continuous operation. It may seem that planning for a one-off drone event would require a completely different approach, however our experience proves that the process is substantially similar.

 

When Harvard Business School and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences decided to launch a new "Engineering + Entrepreneurship" collaboration, it tasked the Xfund at Harvard with creating a public event to inaugurate the seminal partnership. Xfund identified that the right technology to highlight -- the most exciting intersection of engineering and entrepreneurship today -- would be drones. Having set the stage for the Making Robotics Fly (MRF) event, Xfund contracted Aerotas to bring this exciting dream of a public drone demonstration to reality.

For a brief overview of the event, see the below video and our blog post.

 

uav mission requirements

Before we begin designing a drone program, we must identify the mission requirements. We worked with the Xfund team to identify what would provide for the right event:

  • Feature cutting-edge drone technology, with a mix of experimental and contemporary examples
  • Show a variety of business models currently being explored in the drone industry
  • Excite a diverse crowd of 500 industry leaders, faculty, press, and families
  • Demystify drone technology and publicize an optimistic view of the future of drones
  • Ensure near-zero risk for attendees and Harvard University

With alignment on clear mission requirements, Aerotas worked through the drone program design steps to create a successful drone event.

 

Step 1) Select uav hardware

There exists today a glut of drone hardware companies, many of which promise thrilling, cutting-edge, and world-altering technology. The challenge was to identify the right mix of companies that would not only fulfilled the mission requirements, but would be able to reliably demonstrate their technology in a public-facing live event. In addition, the team determined that where possible, we would highlight Cambridge-area companies.

Aerotas leveraged its network and database to identify five participants:

DigiNovations: a media production firm utilizing drones, to illustrate how drones are already being used in business today.

CyPhy Works: a drone manufacturer using its military hardware experience to create a consumer drone, to illustrate the breadth of the drone industry.

Top Flight Tech: a research-focused drone developer, to illustrate how rapid development is pushing drone technology in unique directions.

Matternet: an end-to-end drone delivery provider, to illustrate a potential near future in which drones are part of everyday life.

Drone Racing League: a drone sports league, to illustrate how drone technology may create new opportunities for sport and entertainment.

In addition to ensuring these hardware providers met the mission requirements, Aerotas thoroughly vetted each to be certain that it could reliably and safely demonstrate its technology live.

 

Step 2) select UAV SOFTWARE

The only drone program factor that did not apply to the MRF event was software selection and integration. With no data to handle or analyze, no need for repeatable flight operations, no drone assets to manage long-term, and no need for continuous record-keeping, the mission requirements did not call for any drone software.

It is interesting, however, to note the variety of software that was utilized in the course of the event. DigiNovations leveraged DJI’s proprietary photo and video capture and editing software, and DJI Lightbridge live-streaming software. Top Flight Tech used flight-planning software to allow for its large drone to fly an autopilot mission inside the stadium. Drone Racing League utilized both analog live-streaming to allow for first person view aerobatic flying, as well as capturing digital video. Matternet gave a public walkthrough of its user-friendly automated flight plan creation system.

 

STEP 3) IMPLEMENT UAV PROCEDURES

An essential step in ensuring a drone program function with consistent safety and produce consistent results is implementing procedures and protocols that will guide each flight. While this project did not require drone operations be repeatable through time, it did require near-perfect results and safety for each demonstrator's one public flight.

Every demonstrator had its own specific set-up, staging, and activation procedure for its drone technology. Aerotas worked with each of the demonstrators to ensure they had the physical space, electricity, tools, and time needed to complete these operations without interrupting the flow of the event.

In order to ensure all demonstrators were aligned on the overarching procedures of the event, Aerotas established Event Guidelines, to which each of the demonstrators was required to consent. Further, Aerotas worked with the demonstrators and event MC Sally French (aka Drone Girl) to ensure seamless transitions between demonstrations, as well as contingency plans.

 

CROWD SAFETY

This was by no means the first public UAV event. The established standard has been to confine the demonstrating drones to a small netted-in area, inside a building. However, two attributes of this event made it unique: it took place outside, and demonstrators were encouraged to fully show off the capabilities of their technology. The event set-up had to allow space for a full delivery operation, a show of agility by 30-pound hybrid-drive drone, and a race and aerobatics performance. This meant that the standard format for a UAV demonstration would not work.

Aerotas innovated a novel solution by flipping the norm: rather than confining the drones, the spectator section was enclosed in netting, allowing the demonstrators full use of the entire stadium while keeping spectators completely protected. Security staff ensured that spectators stayed within the netted area whenever demonstrations were underway.

 

uav Operating Procedures

A crucial component to any successful safe drone program is a set of safe operating procedures. For a business client, this would consist of creating an operational checklist specific to its hardware, software, personnel, and workflow stack. In this case, however, Aerotas validated each demonstrator's procedures specific to its technology, and then established overarching safe operating procedures.

Aerotas CEO Logan Campbell functioned as Aerial Safety Coordinator for the event. This meant that he was Visual Observer for every demonstration. During a demonstration, the only person permitted to interact with Logan about anything other than imminent safety concerns was the Pilot In Command of the current demonstration. Every demonstrator consented to the Aerial Safety Coordinator having absolute and undisputed authority to cease all aerial operations in the event of a perceived safety violation or risk, even in the middle of a demonstration.

All demonstrators reviewed their flight plans with the Aerial Safety Coordinator and demonstrated a safe test flight in the stadium before the event. This ensured that flight plans were in keeping with safety specifications, and technological issues such as GPS multipathing and RF interference were addressed.

Though some demonstrating drones flew autonomously, all had to have a Pilot In Command who was able to take control of the drone immediately if commanded by the Aerial Safety Coordinator. Every Pilot In Command and corresponding drone had to be able to execute four operations immediately if commanded by the Aerial Safety Coordinator:

  • Hold and hover in place
  • Return to take-off location
  • Make a controlled direct-vertical landing
  • Kill motors

 

Step 4) Select Drone Insurance

The mix of experimental technology, a public audience, industry and University VIPs, a priceless historic site, and the Harvard name meant that effectively eliminating risk was crucial to program success. However, this was complicated by the mission requirement of creating an exciting, positive publicity-generating event.

With such an historic reputation to protect, Harvard University needed to be completely certain that all those involved and attending would be fully protected in the unlikely event that anything do go awry. While for most business clients, mitigating drone liability only necessitates two intersecting insurance policies — UAV liability with commercial general liability — this unique event required creating an overlapping patchwork of seven insurance policies.

Each demonstrator provided a certificate of insurance naming Harvard University as "also insured" and waiving right of subrogation. Since almost all general liability insurance policies exclude aviation activities, each demonstrator had to additionally show proof of specific aviation liability coverage. This had the effect of temporarily tying the demonstrators' insurance into the University's overarching umbrella general liability policy, giving the University a second layer of protection.

In addition to this two-layered umbrella, the Xfund and Aerotas determined that a third layer of protection was appropriate, because of how unique the risk profile of the event was: experimental flying technology, public attendees, the valuable stadium, and official Harvard University sponsorship. Aerotas collaborated with Overwatch and its underwriting partner Global Aerospace to create a first-ever drone event insurance policy. This policy covered any and all incidents related to unmanned aerial technology within the scope of this two-hour event. This policy was expressly tied to the safe operating procedures established by Aerotas and agreed to by all demonstrators.

With three layers of insurance pulling together seven different policies, the event, University, and attendees were assured to be fully protected from any and all risks. The operating procedures that Aerotas created to power this safety net were only effective by virtue of also ensuring a smoothly-flowing event.

 

Step 5) Understand drone regulations

The final component to a successful event was to ensure that operations would be in compliance with the nebulous and shifting drone regulations. By virtue of being a public demonstration and research-focused event without compensation, under the auspices of Harvard University as a non-profit entity, the MRF event fell outside of the requirements for commercial licensure.

Despite this, Aerotas ensured that all aspects of the MRF event met or exceeded the requirements of the "blanket" 200-foot Certificate of Waiver of Authorization. This included ensuring that all aircraft weigh less than 55 pounds, operate during daytime Visual Flight Rules conditions, operate within visual line of sight of the pilots, and stay five nautical miles from an airport having an operational control tower. Aerotas designed the Event Guidelines and operating procedures in keeping with these guidelines to ensure no interference with manned aircraft operations.

 

UAV PROGRAM SUCCESS

The October 10, 2015 event was a huge success, with positive coverage by the Boston GlobeGazetteWCVB Channel 5, and The Crimson. This success was only possible by having approached the drone program design as an interconnected ecosystem. Even though the software factor was not applicable in this program, the other four factors were designed in concert; for example, insurance and operating procedures were only able to effectively mitigate risk by taking into account the nature of the hardware that would be flying.

Learn more about Aerotas' five-step process for creating an effective drone program.

 

ABOUT AEROTAS

We equip businesses with the right technology and procedures to immediately start using drones in their operations. We focus on the drones so that you can focus on what you do best: delivering value to your customers.

Better yet, contact us to learn more about drone events: info@aerotas.com