Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have been used to support state department of transportation (DOT) activities, including surveying, inspection, construction, and emergency management. Most state DOTs operate under CFR 14 Part 107 rules, which require pilots to pass a knowledge exam. However, the exam is knowledge-based and does not include a practical flight skills component. Not verifying flight proficiency represents a significant barrier and source of liability for states wishing to use drones. Currently, there is no nationally accepted flight proficiency certification or practical test standard (PTS) for small UAS pilots to demonstrate practical knowledge, competent controller operation/manipulation skills, and safe, efficient, and effective operation of UAS.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a “Basic Maneuvering” test, with protocols for organizations to use. However, NIST does not provide guidance on minimum skill levels or certify organizations to administer their exams. The Basic Maneuvering test has several limitations when used as a standardized flight proficiency exam. Building the test is costly and cumbersome to store. Administering the exam requires access to a large level field and a significant labor investment of the proctor to call out instructions and then manually grade the images. Additionally, varying environmental conditions (wind, lighting, etc.) can make score standardization, test-over-test, difficult.
Through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC) incentive program, South Carolina DOT and Clemson University developed a computer simulation that provides different scenarios of UAS operations, including the NIST Basic Maneuvering test where pilots can navigate using a generic drone controller or game pad. Such a computer simulation eliminates the barriers previously identified as it doesn’t need to be stored, is self-proctoring/scoring, and the environmental conditions are consistent. The only hardware needed is a computer with minimal processing power, access to the internet, and a simulator controller.
These two examples are valuable tools for state DOT UAS operations, but as a standalone, these resources do not suffice to satisfy flight proficiency for state DOT UAS operations. Moreover, the scan team report for NCHRP Project 20-68A, Scan 17-01, “Successful Approaches for the Use of Unmanned Aerial System by Surface Transportation Agencies” noted the need to “establish flight-specific training requirements for all UAS operators…” and to “conduct regular training and refresher training programs to ensure compliance with regulations and policy.”
The objective of this research project is to develop and pilot method(s) for state DOT UAS pilots to demonstrate practical skills of UAS operations that complement the CFR 14 Part 107 knowledge exam. The method(s) can be undertaken virtually, in a field operation setting, or in a combination of both.
To realize the objective, the following tasks and their related deliverables are proposed, at a minimum. Proposers may recommend additional tasks and deliverables to support the project objective.
Task 1. Develop draft UAS initial flight proficiency guidance. This should consider the pertinent areas of UAS flight operations, including but not limited to the standards referenced to in Private Pilot ‒ Airplane Airman Certification Standards and Remote Pilot ‒ Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airman Certification Standards.
Deliverable: A draft document on the UAS initial flight proficiency guidance.
Task 2. Develop draft testing framework based on the guidance developed in Task 1 that can be easily implementable by state DOTs. The testing framework should identify readily available hardware and software that can be used and identify field requirements for the practical test.
Deliverables: (a) a draft testing framework, and (b) a user guide for the testing framework.
Task 3. Conduct a workshop for up to 15 participants to evaluate the draft guidance and framework. The participants will have different levels of flight proficiency to fully test the guidance and framework.
Deliverable: A report on the conduct of the workshop.
Task 4. Using the lessons learned from the workshop, develop final guidance and framework.
Deliverables: (a) final document on UAS initial flight proficiency guidance, (b) final testing framework, and (c) final user guide.
Task 5. Conduct a “train the trainer” workshop for up to 15 DOT staff to train them on how to implement the flight proficiency guidance and the testing framework within their organizations.
Deliverables: (a) training materials, and (b) a comprehensive guide on the steps that states need to take to certify UAS pilots.
STATUS: Proposals have been received in response to the RFP. The project panel will meet to select a contractor to perform the work.