How much does a successful security drone programme cost?
The article below was written by Bertus van Zyl; drone technology professional and Managing Director at UAV Aerial Works, a top drone services provider in South Africa.
The company runs Drone Guards, a full security drone services wing that has been disrupting how organisations implement security measures at their premises.
In a nutshell, we guess what we’re saying is that Mr van Zyl knows what he is on about when he shares insights into how organisations can launch and sustain successful drone-based security programmes and operations around their sites.
In a market where security professionals are still feeling their way out on how best to integrate drone technology into everyday operations, clarity from security drone service providers, drone manufacturers and original equipment manufacturers is key in helping chart the way forward.
Here are Aerial Works’ latest thoughts on the subject; we hope you find them useful.
At Aerial Works we often receive Requests for Quotations (RFQ) from prospective clients looking to implement drone security programme in their security strategies and operations.
In that regard, I thought I would share my experiences and thoughts on the components of a good drone security program; how the costing models work; and which components of a drone security program should carry the most weight.
In many cases the RFQ covers the following:
- Hours & shifts
- Type of drone
Let’s take a deep dive into each of these components to see which ones are more important and how each component affects the price quoted.
It is my contention that this is the most important metric of all.
Well trained and well remunerated pilots stay with a company a longer time than pilots that are trained and paid less. Properly trained pilots with the necessary ratings will go the extra mile to learn and understand the client site intimately, thus adding significant value to a security operation; which may need human resources on site even during the night.
At Aerial Works, we therefore pay special attention to train our pilots to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and at night. Collision avoidance sensors don’t work at night; a security drone operation will there need skilled pilots that can create a safe operating environment.
A new pilot armed with a just completed Remote Pilot Competency might be able to fly certain basic manoeuvres. But newly minted pilots have little chances of succeeding at night, where they may be required to fly a drone many kilometres from the take-off point.
The aim of our training is to create competent and confident pilots capable of operating both in the light and in the dark without breaking sweat. Obviously, additional time will be needed for training newly qualified pilots on the specifics of operating security drone technology; and there is an obvious additional cost to this.
Pro tip: Pilot salary is likely a good indication of the quality of training received. Ask the operator how much they pay their pilots.
As the market is not littered with skilled security drone pilots, pilot turnover can be very disruptive in an operation providing uninterrupted service as the eye above and a reliable partner to the ground security forces. As earlier indicated, every new pilot must have a practical induction so they get to know their area of operation and how interaction with ground forces are implemented.
This takes time, effort and money; so service providers should do well to avoid pilot staff turnover.
But how do we do this?
- Pay good salaries.
- Provide quality accommodation.
- Provide food with good nutrition.
- Pay for travel and incidental expenses.
- Allocate enough off time and insist on pilots taking leave.
- Provide emergency medical insurance.
- Provide quality clothing for those cold nights.
- Provide security for the pilots at their base of operations.
To achieve the above, security drone service providers must make sure they have enough pilots to cover for leave and sickness. Working at night is a tough and not very social undertaking. Looking after your pilots’ physical environment leads to a better working environment that is good for pilots’ mental health; and culminates in a stable workforce.
Pro tip: Does the operator have enough pilots to cover for leave and sickness? If not, the result will be overworked pilots, leading to resignations and a drone security program full of disruptions.
Given the above, there is a cost to having more pilots than is necessary for immediate operations. Crew salaries is the biggest driver of any drone security program. But they cannot be avoided if an operator is serious about providing an uninterrupted drone security program.
Hours and Shifts
Drone pilots cannot be compared to ground-based security personnel.
It is not possible for a drone pilot to stare at a remote controller screen for twelve hours a night and be effective. A maximum shift time of eight hours is manageable and if more time per night is required one should shorten the consecutive days of work.
If a night operation has to extend for more than eight hours, it will increase the number of pilots required and result in higher costs per shift.
Having pilot personnel working more than eight hours per night is also one of the leading causes of pilot turnover.
Pro tip: Do not specify more than eight hours per night in your RFQ.
Type of Drone
For drone security one would generally only consider multirotor or fixed wing options.
The type of drone used is determined by the area to be secured. As a rule of thumb, any area that can fit into a 5km radius can be covered with a multirotor drone. Larger areas, or longer flights (for example, pipelines or corridors), might be more suited to fixed wing drones.
Typically, a Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) fixed wing aircraft is desirable due to its ability to dispense with the need for a runway.
The mathematics of the 5km radius is important in understanding the maximum radius for a multirotor drone. For most of today’s multirotor drones the maximum time in air is around 30 minutes before the batteries need changing; and even less if you want to land with a safety margin of 20 percent battery remaining.
Assuming one is flying at a surveillance speed of 30km/hour, it will take six minutes in a straight line to get to 5km, another six minutes to get back, leaving you with 18 minutes of battery time to pursue a target. Most surveillance flights in a multirotor are not in a straight line; and in windy conditions the operating area might shrink as a result. Radio line-of-site will also become a factor at ranges of more than 5km in most instances.
Pro tip: More than 5km radius for a multirotor is not practical.
The choice of a fixed wing VTOL is driven by your payload weight and time-in-air requirements. The training requirements for fixed wing drones are more stringent than for multirotor drones, adding to the already higher cost of the VTOL.
Pro tip: To save money, only use fixed wing drones where the operational requirements necessitate its use.
Interestingly, the cost of the drone is not the largest cost driver of the drone program; rather, the number of hours flown during a typical drone surveillance program means one must replace all the batteries every six months.
It is this cost that in the long run is much higher than the cost of the drone itself.
Pro tip: Does the operator have spare drones in case one of the drones breaks down?
Many RFQ’s include some sort of pickup truck for the drone pilots to travel with and operate from.
Many times, this decision is determined by the environment on site and the safety requirements of the client. The fact is that the drone pilots may need to operate from within this vehicle to protect themselves from the environment.
However, a pickup truck might not be the best solution; hence at Aerial Works we prefer custom built command vehicles for operations. It makes the pilots’ lives safer and easier, and also adds to pilot retention.
It is not possible to get third party liability insurance if you are not a registered operator with the Civilian Aviation Authority. Insurance is however very important for operator and client alike. The peace of mind flowing from properly insured drones makes for another marker of professionalism.
Pro tip: Always ask for proof of insurance when considering a drone security program.
Given the above factors, pricing must then be done carefully to deliver a professional drone security program. My observation is that in many cases the price war between operators is a race to the bottom. If your only metric for evaluating a drone security program is price – without consideration for all the important factors listed above – you will soon find yourself at the receiving end of bad service.
A much better metric will be a combination of the above components to evaluate prospective drone security providers. Also keep in mind that compliance is a constant expense for operators and must be budgeted for in the costing model.
Pro tip: Don’t leave the RFQ specifications to your procurement department. Get involved and be specific.
Finally, we can arrive at a sensible costing model that includes: Drones, Vehicles, Pilot training, Fuel, Maintenance, Management, Crew salaries, Crew travel, Operations resources, Battery replacement, Medical, Uniforms, Accommodation, Food, Safety kits, Insurance, and a Profit for the operator.
At Aerial Works, we pride ourselves on being a people-focused business. Our staff is our number one priority, and the results are clear to see at any of the sites we work. We have built our reputation on quality, our management is hands on, and we have a happy workforce with low pilot turnover.
So now you know why price alone is a terrible metric for evaluating drone security.