Risk Management and Aeronautical Decision Making

Two of my favorite topics to discuss with my students and other aviators is Risk Mitigation and Aeronautical Decision Making (or ADM). We typically spend the better part of a day discussing these topics and going through scenarios that require us to identify hazards and develop and exercise ADM skills. I look forward to this section each time I lead a Part 107 Bootcamp.

When it comes to operating any aircraft, there’s at least some degree of risk associated with it – even if it’s only an unmanned aircraft. In my mind, Risk Mitigation and ADM go hand in hand with one another and developing the skills in one enhances the other.

In this post, we’ll discuss how a UAS pilot can learn to identify hazards, mitigate risk, and exercise effect ADM.

What’s the Difference Between Hazards and Risk?

According to the Pilot Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, a hazard is a real or perceived condition, event, or circumstance that a pilot encounters. Risk is the assessment of the cumulative hazard facing a pilot – that is, the pilot assigns a value to the hazard based on the impact that hazard might have on the operation.

The greater the impact on the operation = greater risk.

High wind, for instance, might have a high impact on the operation, so the pilot might assign it a higher value (risk) and decide not to fly until the wind calms down a bit.

Which leads me into ADM!

Aeronautical Decision Making

Another big topic that we will return to in future articles is Aeronautical Decision Making, or ADM for short.

The FAA defines ADM as “a systematic approach to the mental process used by pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances. It is what a pilot intends to do based on the latest information he or she has.”

In simple terms, ADM is using all of the information available to respond to a change in circumstances.

The example I provided above regarding weather comes to mind as it’s easy to understand: before the pilot launches the UAS, she notices the wind has picked up a lot. In response, she pauses, checks the weather and sure enough a thunderstorm is approaching. The wind she and her crew are experiencing is associated with the outflow boundary.

As the remote pilot in command, the pilot decides not to fly until the storm has passed.

That’s ADM in action!

Why Should UAS Pilots Care About ADM and Risk Management?

Remember the example I gave about the pilot noticing the wind picking up? That’s ADM in its essence. It’s about using all available information to make the best decision in any given situation. As a UAS pilot, you’re constantly presented with changing circumstances.It could be weather, equipment malfunctions, or even unexpected obstacles.

ADM equips you with the tools to navigate these challenges effectively.

Think of ADM as your mental co-pilot. It’s that voice in your head that says, “Hey, maybe we should check the weather again before launching,” or “That area looks crowded; perhaps we should find a safer spot.” By honing your ADM skills, you’re not just ensuring the safety of your drone but also of the people and property below.

The Role of Risk Management

Now, let’s talk about Risk Management. In my sessions at the Part 107 Bootcamp, I often liken Risk Management to a safety net. It’s the process of identifying potential hazards and then taking steps to reduce or eliminate them.

For instance, consider flying your drone on a slightly overcast day. The risk? Losing visibility or encountering unexpected weather conditions. The mitigation? Perhaps waiting for clearer skies or ensuring you have a reliable Return-to-Home feature activated.

Risk Management and ADM are like two sides of the same coin. While ADM helps you make informed decisions on the fly, Risk Management is about preemptively identifying and addressing potential issues.

The Accident Chain

The FAA emphasizes the concept of the “accident chain” in its publications about Risk Management and ADM.

The accident chain refers to a series of events or decisions that, when linked together, lead to an undesirable outcome or accident. Each link in the chain represents an opportunity for intervention, and if any link is broken, the progression towards the accident can be stopped.

One of the best ways to break the accident chain is by identifying hazards early before the accident chain leads to an undesirable result.

When I’m instructing students in our Part 107 Bootcamp and in the Electrical Utility Primer, we spend a lot of time learning how to identify hazards associated with a task, then we find ways to eliminate or mitigate that risk.

ADM is like your trusty co-pilot, guiding you through a systematic approach to assess risks and make informed decisions. It’s all about spotting potential dangers, assessing their impact, and then taking steps to either reduce or completely sidestep those risks.

The FAA often points out that many mishaps can be traced back to one thing: poor decision making.

Now that we understand Risk Management and ADM, let’s jump into some of the models the FAA provides to help pilots make better decisions.

ADM Models and Checklists

If you haven’t already taken your Part 107 exam, you can be sure you’ll see these models!

But don’t memorize them for the exam – use them in your daily operations to help break the accident chain before it starts.

IMSAFE Checklist

The IMSAFE Checklist is tool pilots use to self-assess their fitness for flight.

  • I – Illness: Is the pilot suffering from any illness or symptoms of illness? Even a common cold can significantly impact a pilots ability to perform.
  • M – Medication: Has the pilot taken any medications, prescription or over-the-counter, that might affect their ability to fly? Some medications can impair judgment, reaction time, or other faculties necessary for safe flight.
  • S – Stress: Is the pilot under significant stress, be it personal, professional, or financial? Stress can reduce the pilots capacity to make sound decisions.
  • A – Alcohol: Has the pilot consumed alcohol in the previous 8 hours? The FAA has a strict “8 Hours Bottle to Throttle” policy, but even after this period, alcohol can still impact performance.
  • F – Fatigue: Is the pilot rested? Fatigue can impair reaction times and lead to poor performance.
  • E – Emotion: Is the pilot emotionally upset or disturbed about something? Strong emotions can impact decision making.

Before beginning an operation, the pilot should ask himself: Am I ready for this flight? Am I fit to fly?

PAVE Checklist

The PAVE Checklist is tool pilots can use to assess the overall operation.

  • P – Pilot: Is the pilot properly trained on the equipment? Has the pilot completed the IMSAFE Checklist?
  • A – Aircraft: Has the pilot taken taken steps to ensure the aircraft is ready for flight? Have all checklists been completed? Is this the correct aircraft for the job?
  • V – enVironment : Is the environment suitable for flight? Trees, weather, wind, precipitation? Are people present? Can the flight be conducted without posing an undue risk to people or property on the ground?
  • E – External Pressure: Is there a need to complete this flight? External pressure can cause a pilot to ignore all of the other items and should be strongly considered.

Before beginning an operation, the pilot should ask himself: Does this operation make sense? Can I do it safely? Am I under pressure to complete the flight?

3P Model for Decision Making

Another model you should be familiar with and one that I use routinely is the 3P Model. The 3P Model is a continuous loop decision making process that allows the pilot use throughout all phases of flight to address a change in circumstances.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Perceive: The pilot perceives a change in circumstances (think back to the wind example above).
  2. Process: The pilot processes the impact of that change on the safety of the flight.
  3. Perform: The pilot responds to that change by performing an action that effectively mitigates the risk introduced by the change.

The 3P Model can be used before flight, after takeoff, during the operation, before and during landing. For this reason, it’s an excellent model to memorize and utilize.

An example of the 3P Model might look like this:

  1. About halfway through a flight, the pilot notices the wind is beginning increase significantly and the crew feels some strong wind gusts. (Perceive a change in circumstances).
  2. The pilot estimates the impact on the flight. Given the need to fly close to structures to capture the images she needs, she estimates the wind gust could significantly impact the aircrafts stability in flight and increase the risk of a collision. (Process the impact).
  3. Given the increased risk associated with flying, the pilot decides to slowly move the UAS away from the structure she’s operating near. Then, once safe to do so, return to land and assess the weather once the UAS is on the ground. (Perform an action to mitigate the change).

5P Model for Decision Making

Usually associated with single pilot resource management, the 5P Model allows a pilot to assess the overall operation throughout the flight.

  1. Plan: Is the flight plan reasonable?
  2. Plane: Are all systems functioning correctly?
  3. Pilot: Is the pilot fit to fly?
  4. People: Have the people involved with the operation been briefed?
  5. Programming: Is the UAS programmed correctly and configured to respond appropriately to emergencies (ex. RTL)?

The 5P Model can be used throughout all phases of flight to help the pilot stay ahead of potential issues based on the latest information.

DECIDE Model for Decision Making

The DECIDE Model is a systematic decision making process that pilots can use to evaluate and respond to situations that may arise during flight operations. It provides a structured approach to ensure safe and effective decision making.

Here’s how the DECIDE Model works in the context of a UAS operation:

  1. D – Detect: Recognize that a change has occurred or that something is not right. For UAS pilots, this could be noticing a sudden change in drone behavior, unexpected weather conditions, or an obstacle in the drone’s path.
  2. E – Estimate: Evaluate the potential impact of the detected change. UAS pilots might consider questions like: How will this affect my mission? Is the drone at risk of collision or malfunction? Is there a potential threat to people or property on the ground?
  3. C – Choose: Decide on an desirable outcome and course of action to address the detected change. This might involve deciding to return the drone to its home point, adjust its altitude, or even land it immediately.
  4. I – Identify: Determine which action could control the change. This could include determining the root cause of the change or issue. This step helps in understanding the underlying problem. For instance, if a drone is behaving erratically, is it due to a technical malfunction, interference, or adverse weather conditions?
  5. D – Do: Execute the chosen course of action. This is where the UAS pilot actively addresses the situation, whether it’s redirecting the drone, landing it, or making necessary adjustments to its flight path.
  6. E – Evaluate: After taking action, assess the results. Did the action resolve the issue? Is the drone now operating safely? If not, the UAS pilot might need to cycle back through the DECIDE steps to find another solution.

Wrapping It Up

As you can see, Risk Mitigation and Aeronautical Decision Making go hand in hand. Pilots who learn how to effectively identify hazards and develop the skills to control them will ultimately be the safest and most professional pilots in the industry. The effective development and use of ADM skills will help pilots and their crews break the accident chains before they lead to problems.

Hopefully you found this article helpful in your journey as a UAS pilot. Regardless of where you are on that journey, I hope you’re inspired to develop critical ADM and Risk Management skills.

If you’re looking for ways to further your career as a UAS pilot through gaining new skills, let us know. We have several options that you might find helpful.

Happy Flying!

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