Considering Buying an Unmanned Aircraft? More Things to Think About

By Sammy Gerdano posted 29-07-2015 15:32

By Matt Vance

The first article in this two-part series explored seven suggestions for consideration in your first UAS purchase: clarity of ownership objectives; vehicle performance requirements; propulsion system; runway independence; additional system components; budget, and value of a market survey. Part two explores considerations in selecting a UAS supplier and issues associated with taking ownership.

The first consideration in choosing a supplier is, how much risk are you willing to accept? Brand-name recognition in an entrepreneurial environment is more challenging than in an established market where dominant players are well known. Lack of brand name recognition generally equates to more risk for the buyer. Established UAS suppliers with name recognition will likely have built their business with the U.S. Department of Defense as their primary customer and will generally have products with lower risk, impressive capabilities and with commensurate costs. A company history and acknowledged customer base connotes less risk.

Developmental UAS will bring more technology maturity risk than a production vehicle. While tempting because of the promised capability, developmental flight vehicles are difficult to purchase with all three driving variables intact: on-time, on-budget and meeting (or exceeding) vehicle performance guarantees. At least one, or reluctantly, two of the driving variables of time, budget or promised performance will usually require modification and negotiation.

If your need or your organization cannot tolerate this variability, then remove developmental vehicles from your consideration and instead stay with vehicles and companies than have progressed beyond the “knee” in their production learning curves.

Parallel with technology maturity, there will likely be a loyal, ambivalent or disloyal customer base. If your selected supplier cannot supply a list of satisfied customers, this should be a warning of high risk — you may be the first customer for the product. Company websites that contain testimonials are usually a good indicator of mature products that enjoy satisfied customers. A recommended condition of purchase would be to request a short list of satisfied customers for the product you are considering purchasing. Then, take the time to contact the customers and make your own assessment of their satisfaction.

Has the supplier listened to and met your performance requirements? If purchasing a developmental vehicle or a vehicle with new features that will be added to a mature vehicle, the supplier should track the progress to your requirements. This should include every component of the UAS, not just the air vehicle. Attention should be paid to ground system operational needs, storage and transport needs, data collection and data reduction needs, regulatory and airspace access needs, and maintenance needs. Any requirement that is not specifically addressed in the sales agreements should be assumed as unmet and potentially worse, unable to be met by the supplier. If you do not feel that this performance requirements tracking is occurring, do not sign a purchase contract.

Typical legal contractual vehicles are important too, and could include a sales agreement clearly showing all costs and payment schedules; a delivery schedule and phases of delivery if the UAS will not be delivered in a single shipment; the manufacturer’s supplied training schedule; and provisions of manufacturer after-sale support. The can also include any related memorandums of understanding between your organization and the supplier, and, if mutually desired, a nondisclosure agreement that legally seals a private relationship between you and the supplier.

The completeness and promptness in which the supplier presents you with these legal documents will be a strong indication of professionalism. Negotiations to close on specific issues are normal and an expected dialog. Protracted negotiations that require legal counsel involvement, beyond a nominal review for company compliance with purchase protocols, are usually an indication of more difficult times ahead in the supplier-customer relationship.

The U.S. Department of State’s International Trafficking and Arms Regulations rules clearly stipulate in the published Munitions List that any UAS that can have a military purpose is covered by ITAR restrictions. Owning a UAS that can be interpreted to have military value must be restricted in access to U.S. citizens or those with U.S. person privileges. This presents special storage and operating challenges, especially for public institutions such as universities that must restrict UAS curricula, laboratory and field operating access to students with U.S. citizenship or U.S. person privileges.

At the present time, a conservative, but realistic, view for any UAS that can carry a payload would be to assume that your purchase must comply with ITAR.

Finally, as you prepare to take ownership of your new UAS, these considerations could help — take advantage of any offered supplier’s training. Prepare checklists for everything, even what appear to be the most mundane tasks. Keep flight logs just as you would for any manned aircraft. Barring a more mature approach, mirror your maintenance and inspection procedures after those established in Federal Aviation Regulations Part 43 for manned aircraft.

Also, don’t overlook the value of an established dispatch protocol to ensure that personnel who are entrusted with your UAS are qualified to operate it, and to ensure that what is taken to the field is returned. Lastly, consider hard-side cases for UAS storage and transport. Hazardous materials, such as flammables and batteries, deserve their own specialized containers too. A place for everything, whether at your home location or in the field, will greatly ease taking inventory, reduce loss and unnecessary, avoidable damage.

Hopefully this two-part compendium of ownership and supplier considerations will help you make a more focused and successful first UAS purchase.

Matt Vance is currently assigned as a flight instructor/senior researcher at Saint Louis University’s Parks College Aviation Science program. In addition to duties providing primary flight instruction in SLU’s professional pilot curricula, he leads new lines of analysis and research oriented around improvements in the cockpit learning environment.

A former U.S. Navy officer and career aerospace executive, Matt began his academic career in the fall of 2011 with Parks Center for Aviation Safety Research (CASR), where he was instrumental in airspace acquisition, procurement and operation of Zagi, Prioria Robotics’ Maverick and Tetra, and Williams Aerospace Taurus unmanned aircraft. Matt completed his dissertation in May 2014 on the factors that may be essential in the decision to fly as a passenger on fully autonomous airliners.