What goes into planning an Assignment?

With thousands of years of history, the British are rightly proud of their heritage. And it’s probably fair to say, as a seafaring nation, that the Royal Navy is central to that. Dominating the skyline above Dartmouth in Devon is a foundation stone of the Royal Navy, Britannia Royal Naval College, where officers undergo their basic training. Prince Charles and other members of the Royal Family did their training here and it is where Prince Philip first met his wife to be, the then Princess Elizabeth.

Each intake of new recruits spends 30 weeks at the college where they learn leadership, teamwork and all the other elements that are fundamental to being an officer in the Royal Navy. At the end of the 30 weeks, the officers graduate from the college at a ceremony called “Passing Out Parade”. It is a moment of great pride, a milestone at the beginning of their career, and their families and friends come to the parade to witness this never to be repeated moment in their lives.

The August 2020 passing out parade was unique in its own right, because it was the very first time that both officers and ratings had completed their basic training together and were to pass out at the same parade.

The naval college had been filming the parades for a number of years, but this time it had been decided to include aerial footage of the event. Technovista was brought in to provide that footage and this article explains what went in to ensuring that the event went off safely and successfully. It is an interesting case study into the preparations and planning that are involved in conducting aerial filming with a drone – a significant element of the time and cost of such an operation.

Fast Jets!

Technovista was delighted to be asked to assist in the filming of this historic event and we had the advantage at the outset that our staff had previous experience of working with Britannia Royal Naval College. Because of this we knew that there was a possibility of a military aircraft flypast during the parade, but also that there would be a Flight Liaison Officer at the college who would be able to assist us in our planning. A quick phone call and we were in touch with the Flight Liaison Officer, a very helpful Lieutenant, who herself is also a Naval Flight Crew member.

On speaking with this Officer, we discovered that there wouldn’t be just one fly past, but two! First there would be three Hawk fast jets coming over (or “on top” in Naval parlance) and then, about 25 minutes later, a Merlin helicopter.

It is never a good thing for a drone to be sharing airspace in close proximity with another aircraft – especially three high speed jets! So it was important for us to agree a “deconfliction plan” with the Navy, which we did as follows:

  • with a suitable margin of error, just in case the jets (or the Merlin) arrived early (unlikely, given the impeccable timing of our armed forces – but possible), we planned to have our drone on the ground before these aircraft were due “on top”.
  • we had to allow for the possibility (however unlikely) that just when we needed to instruct the drone to land, there would be some form of breakdown in communications with it. It is rare, but it has been known for a drone to develop a mind of its own (known in the industry as a “Flyaway”) and we could not afford for this to happen with other aircraft coming over. However drone batteries have an endurance limited to 20 minutes. So we knew that if we were to take off half an hour before the aircraft were due to arrive, we could be certain that battery exhaustion would have forced the drone back onto the ground, come what may, at least 10 minutes before there was any problem.
  • Next, although our liaison officer was already in touch with the squadrons, we would register our flight operation on the military’s Centralised Aviation Data Service (CADS) which could be organised through the “Military Low Flying Booking Cell”. This would ensure that all low-level military flights would be notified of the operation.
  • Lastly we would raise a “Notice to Airmen” (NOTAM), which can be done through the Civil Aviation Authority and which is a publicly available notice for aviators, notifying them of a hazard. We would also notify our local airport (Exeter) of our operation.
Flyaway planning, ground hazards and other considerations

Although we had already given a lot of thought to deconflicting with the Navy, we still had to think about other air users in the vicinity.

Depending on the model, a drone can travel at speeds of up to 60 or 70 miles per hour. With battery endurances of half an hour or more, a considerable distance can be covered before there is no longer any power to stay in the air. If our drone were to lose contact with the ground and disappear into the distance “un-commanded”, we needed to be aware of what else would be in range that it might cause a nuisance to (or worse).

Out came our aviation map so that we could work this out.

Of particular interest was the location of other airfields, whether a commercial airport (Exeter was approximately 23 miles away from our site on a bearing of 015 degrees) or a small microlight airfield such as Halwell (5 miles on 275 degrees). We had to think about population centres where the drone might come down; Dartmouth being right on the doorstep and Torbay just across the river. The authorities also don’t like drones near prisons (for obvious reasons) and we had to take this into account and decide on our plan in the event that the drone headed off towards one of these sensitive areas.

Having identified who needed to be informed, we made phone calls and sent emails, letting people know of our intentions. This included an email to Devon and Cornwall Police who responded with a log number for our records.

Site planning

If there ever were an accident, a resulting investigation by the authorities would examine the paperwork that we had created to record our risk assessment and mitigation measures. All of the measures we had taken so far were captured in our risk assessment document, but we also had to think about a number of further risks and document those as well. They included:-

  • ensuring that we had identified a primary takeoff and landing (TOAL) area from which the drone could safely operate, but which also allowed the drone “pilot” to have a clear view not just of take off and landing, but also the area in which the drone would operate while filming. The TOAL needed to be marked off with safety tape and provided with first aid equipment and fire extinguishers.
  • ensuring that we could take measures to ensure that visitors would not wander into the TOAL area where they might risk coming to harm.
  • planning flight paths during filming that would minimise the time spent directly overhead people, so that if the drone suddenly lost power it would not come down on top of them.
  • arranging a flight briefing so that people knew what to do in various scenarios such as a crash (heaven forbid) or the drone pilot becoming incapacitated while the drone was in the air.
  • Weather forecasts and other factors which might not be immediately obvious such as the Kp-Index which gives an indication of the earth’s geomagnetic activity and which can warn about possible interference with communications between the ground and the drone.
A TOAL area.

We also had to consider our available batteries and how much flight time they would allow for, so that we could be sure the drone was airborne for the most important film shots.

So how did the day go?

The day went extremely well and proves the old adage that “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance!” Although misty to start with (and initially with a possibility of thunderstorms which would have grounded us), the weather cleared and we had a sunny passing out parade.

The Hawk jets didn’t turn up in the end, but the Merlin helicopter did. As planned we were already safely on the ground when the helicopter dramatically popped up from river level and ostentatiously cruised gently past, a few hundred feet above the parade.

We got the film sequences that had been planned and you are welcome to view some of the material we collected in the video below. There’s no sound with this video, but we hope you will enjoy it anyway.

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Every job is different

No two aerial filming assignments are the same. Each brings its own risks and each requires its own measures to ensure that the assignment is completed successfully and, above all, safely.

If you have recently had a quotation from a drone operator and you aren’t sure why it seems expensive for the time that the drone actually spends in the air, perhaps this article has helped you to understand the preparation that is needed and why it is so important for you to have a professional organisation do the job for you.

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