From Start-up to Essential Work in a Pandemic
Author: Lindsey Mitchell, Office Operations Manager / UAS Pilot
Getting Started with UAS
It seems like yesterday that I was hired as a UAS (drone) pilot with Media Wing, LLC. In January of 2016, this was not long after Media Wing was founded, and just before we acquired Airshark. With my background as a corporate airplane pilot and Certified Flight Instructor, it was exciting to get involved in an industry that was changing the future of aviation. Early on at Airshark, drones were new, exciting and had so much potential. It was something that the industry had an interest in, but no one knew “how” or “where” it was going to be applied. As the attractiveness grew, it was apparent to us that we needed to carve out our niche and become professionals in a host of different areas. We decided to focus on inspecting complex infrastructures (bridges, transmission towers, etc.) and terrain mapping (UAS LiDAR). Becoming a trusted UAS Solutions provider in these regulated industries was no easy task and required a high level of safety and industry-specific knowledge. So, we got to work!
Not long after Airshark was in full stride, we recognized that to be successful in these markets there was a need for robust safety procedures, dispatch readiness, and operational excellence. My role quickly expanded to UAS Pilot/Safety Coordinator with oversight of our safety procedures, operations manuals, airspace authorizations, and filing for FAA Part 107 waivers, including night-time authorization, flying over pedestrians and BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight). Modeled after the corporate aviation industry, we were very proud of our safety procedures and the extent of training and compliance that we were committed to.
Two companies become one
Ok, jump forward to 2018, Airshark has been acquired by ARE (formerly known as American Rail Engineers) with over 3,500 rail bridges under management and a team of experienced and Professional Engineers. While bringing the two companies together and aligning business processes, again, …safety was at the forefront. The rail industry requires all vendors/ contractors to comply with the FRA (Federal Rail Administration) guidelines, which has zero tolerance for not adhering with its safety expectations (something we appreciate). The UAS industry is governed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), so integrating the two for us seemed natural. A big part of the last 2-years has been focused on integrating the two safety systems into one comprehensive Safety Manual. Creating a robust training system and standard operating procedures was crucial as our bridge inspectors become proficient with operating drones, and our pilots become familiar with inspecting railroad bridges. As you can imagine, these work environments introduce several risk factors and hazards that need to be treated with the utmost respect.
Once we had everyone following our safety procedures, we discovered we didn’t have a good feedback loop on how our employees were adjusting to these procedures. We were often concerned with how our customers felt about our commitment to safety, as compliance usually meant added time on the job. To provide real root cause analysis and corrective action, we pulled together a Safety Committee. You got it; I became the lead! Shortly after this team was formed, we realized the need for safety measures, weekly employee updates, improved equipment, additional training, and on and on. These are all crucial pieces of what’s required to move from having safety procedures to establishing safety as the # 1 priority and the heart of the company’s culture. That’s why we had our CEO, Dave Anderson, join the Safety Committee. It gives the employees a direct line to safety awareness and the attention it required.
ARE Safety Reporting Process
Just as the cross-training and procedures were becoming a standard concept within our organization, the nation got hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because ARE is considered part of the countries’ “essential services”, we needed to ensure that our employees could stay healthy and our work could be completed. Our safety procedures were quickly adapted to meet the CDC, Federal, State, and Local Guidelines while still maintaining the quality service that we provide our clients.
Essential Work in a Pandemic
Which brings us to where we are today… Fortunately, because ARE has safety ingrained in everything we do, and our teams are trained on our procedures, we were able to adjust without compromising service to our customers or the health of our employees. I’m proud to be the Office Operations Manager at ARE, reporting directly to the CEO. I’m given the support I need to always be looking out for our employees, no matter what the situation is. I am empowered to get things done. At ARE, we’re working with private railroads, utilities, public transportation entities, among others, to keep our nation’s critical infrastructure safe, and I’m THRILLED to be a part of this team.