What is a multi rotor Safety Officer? What do they do? These are the questions I’m answering in my series “The Multi Rotor Safety Officer.” You can read part 1 or part 2 if you need to catch up, but otherwise let’s start with…
Maintaining the Ship
Ship maintenance is foremost the Pilot’s job, but redundancy is crucial to an optimal team. Before any flight, it is wise to check the ship for any loose connectors, visible damage, or any abnormalities. However, this brings up a big point: You need to actually be familiar with the ship. You should know what you’re looking at. That should at least mean you know the basic parts and how they interact with each other, but trust me when I say that your job will get easier and make more sense when you understand a ship and how everything on it works. However, whether you’re a complete newbie or have built a number of ships, you must always defer to the Pilot if you see something awry. If you have a concern, let the Pilot know and he will either fix it (or allow you to fix it) or let you know the reasoning for it. Never change anything on a Pilot’s ship without his permission. Communication is key to keeping a multi rotor working properly.
Another aspect of maintenance is simply taking good care of the ship at all times. A Safety Officer should make sure the ship is protected during on-location transport. When moving around on foot, either my Pilot or myself will carefully carry the ship. I highly recommend that, if possible, you don’t attempt to carry anything else so that you can focus on keeping the ship bump-free. It’s also good to remember to keep the top of the ship facing toward your body so that if anything does bump the ship it won’t come in direct contact with important components. When the ship and gimbal are assembled and waiting on the launchpad, it’s also wise to stand close by to “babysit” them. This means making sure no unauthorized persons wander too close and start poking at it, making sure no vehicles smash it to bits, and certainly being close for a quick response should any rain or spray start to threaten the ship. It can be tempting at times to follow the Pilot and Gimbal Op around as they discuss shots with the Director, but if the ship is outside of a safe, controlled environment it’s the Safety Officer’s job to stick around and make sure no harm comes to it.
Spotting is the most obvious job of a Safety Officer, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its intricacies. The biggest aspect of spotting that is most often overlooked is strong communication between the Safety Officer and Pilot. My Pilot flies by FPV, so he is looking at his monitor almost the entire flight. This means it is my job to keep my eyes on the ship and on the surrounding airspace and communicate to him anything he needs to know. Obviously, proper communication will require you to either be standing next to the Pilot (this is also helpful because it allows you to peek at his screen to double-check battery voltage and confirm what his FPV camera is showing) or using a two-way radio if the shot requires you to be spotting from a separate area.
Again, communication is key. That doesn’t mean only communicating when there is an obstacle or when the Pilot asks you something. Confirmation is a huge help to the Pilot. As a general rule, I try to confirm the Pilot whenever he is making a move that he could be unsure about. Obviously, if the flight is in completely clear airspace, you can simply confirm him every few minutes. But usually there are telephone wires to clear, trees to avoid, birds to keep an eye on, and a host of other obstacles for a Pilot to worry about, so confirming to him something simple like “looking good up there” lets him know that he can carry on doing what he’s doing, knowing that his Safety Officer has an eye in the sky and everything looks good. Then, of course, if he’s headed toward the telephone wires just a little too low for comfort, you can let him know to “elevate a little for safety” and he can react accordingly, knowing again that you have eyes on what he may not be able to see as well from his FPV camera. I also like to confirm that our landing area is “clear for landing” (free of debris or bystanders, stable if not on solid ground, and safe from any oncoming vehicles) whenever the Pilot prepares to bring the ship back in.
Of course, communication is something of a thin line. Talk too much, and the Pilot won’t be able to focus or communicate the shot with the Gimbal Op. Talk too little and the Pilot will worry. Another aspect of communication that requires some tact is tone. I try to keep a calm, positive tone whenever confirming my Pilot or giving him minor changes to make (moves that may not be critical but allow more cushion for safety). This is so that when I alert him of something more serious, he will be able to gauge the seriousness in the tone of my voice.
So what are you looking at when spotting? Most of the time I am watching the ship itself in the air. Then, depending on the nature of the shot and of the location, I will check the airspace surrounding the ship, the airspace to which the ship is heading, the groundspace beneath the ship (if the ship were to fall out of the sky, would anyone be at risk?), the groundspace around the crew (the last thing you want is your Pilot getting hit by a car in the middle of a flight), and any additional potential hazards the location presents (flocks of birds, incoming helicopters, etc.).
I’ll say it again, and not for the last time: Proper communication is key for safe and effective multi rotor operation. Take some time to discuss with your Pilot how he or she prefers to have you communicate during spotting. Once you dial in and develop a system over time, you’ll find that both you and your Pilot will be more comfortable in the air.
We here at VidMuze Aerial Cinema believe drone safety is always a priority. Check out our work and stay tuned for the final part of this series, which will cover “Charging Batteries & Public Relations.”