Towards the end of the 20th century, the usage of UAS (drones) increased significantly, mostly driven by the US Military. As key technologies and platforms became more accessible, it became clear that the usage of drones could be expanded beyond the battlefield and into civilian commercial use.
Given that much of current UAS technology was actually developed and used by the military, it only follows that much of the operational norms and processes are derived from military protocol. Hence the idea of having a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) document for commercial drone operations.
What Is a CONOPS?
A Concept of Operations (CONOPS) is a verbal or graphic statement of a commander’s assumptions or intent in regard to an operation or series of operations as defined by Joint Publication 1-02 “DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms”. It’s designed to give an overall picture of an operation and is designed to convey ‘commander’s intent.’
Having a CONOPS document is a critical component of launching a successful Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone program. When you apply for a BVLOS waiver in the United States, the FAA will oftentimes review your CONOPS document to ensure that your team is fully aware of and has implemented the necessary operational culture and procedures to ensure safe drone flights.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the basic frameworks and topics that you should cover in your CONOPS plan.
A Complete CONOPS Plan
The essential components of a CONOPS document include detailed descriptions of the aircraft, mission, procedures, and risk mitigation.
You’ll start with an overview section, in which you go over some of the high level pieces of your CONOPS so as to give the reader an idea of what your document is all about. Given that commercial BVLOS operations are still in the early stages of development, good CONOPS documents are geared toward the “crawl, walk, run” approach so as to give as much latitude as possible to bake in learning and maturing the program towards reliable BVLOS operations.
Here are some of the topics that you would cover:
- The purpose of the mission that is operating under the BVLOS waiver
- An overview of the organization—this is less of an org structure and more of a focus on organizational goals, prior flight experience, prior regulatory approvals obtained, current approvals under way, and the intent of the organization for obtaining such approvals
- What success looks like for your organization when completing the mission
- An overview of the UAS system being used in the mission—this includes details on the datalink, airframe, and general familiarity with said airframe (e.g. number of hours flown)
- An overview of the area and terrain that the organization plans to fly over. This includes details like descriptions of the landing and takeoff locations, notable mission areas, and specific reasons for choosing said area that includes safety benefits of the location
- Mission overview that includes details on pilots, purpose, mission objectives, and any other high level information
- Community outreach efforts that include details around the plan to engage with the community that may be within the ground risk area of the planned operations
“Crawl, Walk, Run”
Starting a drone program is no easy feat. Given that commercial drone operations is still a relatively new industry, any pragmatic drone program will have a “crawl, walk, run” approach to starting, developing, and maturing the program. It’s important to bake this into your CONOPS as well to align every stakeholder around the idea that it’s important to develop the program in 3 distinct phases, layering on the complexity as the program builds flight history and experience.
The high level overview of each phase should include a description of the phase, detailed start and end points/conditions, as well as purpose.
Crawl Phase (Phase 1)
VLOS and C2 Link Validation
The “crawl” phase of the CONOPS focuses on testing of the system in the flight area and validating VLOS operations and command-and-control (C2) links. In general, this phase includes details around flight testing to be conducted, site surveys, and C2 performance tests.
Preliminary Testing of BVLOS Flight
The next part of this phase involves preliminary testing of the BVLOS functionality under waiver.
This section should include a description of what success should look like (typically these include details such as what goals will have been completed, what will have been verified, validated, or demonstrated, and what steps will have been taken to progress to the next phase.
Walk Phase (Phase II)
The “walk” phase of the CONOPS describes the second Phase of operations under the waiver; these are typically more complex procedures incorporated into the BVLOS flight, without altering any operational elements mandated by the received waiver. Include the following, if available:
- Next set of waivers sought
- What completion of this stage entails
- Expected benefits from advancing phases
- What this phase sets up for phase 3
Run Phase (Phase III)
Phase 3 of the CONOPS is describing a much later stage of your drone operations. At this phase, focus on providing a high level view of the desired end state of the operations as they will be executed by the end user.
Timelines and Milestones
Additionally, include a description of timelines and milestones to be accomplished at each phase.
Once you’ve provided a high level overview, you’ll need to cover the other essential components of your CONOPS which includes detailed descriptions of the aircraft, mission, procedures, and risk mitigation.
Aircraft and Technical Specifications
When the FAA reviews the CONOPS document, they will want a detailed overview of the proposed aircraft system to be used. Include a specification sheet of the aircraft, as well as any OEM-provided standard operating, maintenance, and emergency procedures for the aircraft. If one is unavailable, you can always check with Iris Automation to see if we have one created specifically for your chosen aircraft.
Given that there are multiple hardware and software components working together inside the aircraft, provide a component diagram that shows how each piece of equipment is connected and interacts with the other.
Collision avoidance technology is an important component of a BVLOS operation. Iris Automation’s Casia system is an excellent example of collision avoidance technology that you should include and detail in the CONOPs. Detailed information about the technology can be found in the Casia Long Range System Outline and Test Methods document, as well as the Casia Quick Start Guide. Both of these documents are provided within the Safety Case documentation.
The documentation covers the following:
- When Casia should be used
- The system’s architecture and functions
- Technical specifications
- Its compliance with detect-and-avoid standards currently in development
- How the system is tested
- Environments and conditions in which it has been tested for use
- System limitations
- System performance—including all test results from the system to date
Critical Component Descriptions
Include descriptions of the following equipment as part of the systems overview:
- Radio & Ground Control Station (GCS) Configuration
- ADS-B equipment onboard
- Datalink (including C2 and non-C2 datalink)
- Autopilot and mission planning software
- Reliability data around the aircraft being used
Any additional information that is relevant to the sUAS system being used should be included; these may include the following:
- Design and production process of the aircraft (if the aircraft is custom-built)
- Configuration management (Configuration Management policies and procedures in place for the proposed operations)
- Maintenance procedures for the sUAS system
- Any other additional equipment used to support operations. This could include a launch and recovery system, generators, power supplies, etc
Mission Specifications & Operational Volumes
Any good CONOPS documentation will have a detailed description of the mission to be conducted, the proposed operational area, and the risk mitigation processes in place. The operational area should include a map of the area, and proposed operational, contingency, emergency and ground risk buffers (SORA containment volume).
Additionally, include details about the surrounding area (e.g. population centers, aerodromes, any airspace of note, etc), as well as your launch and recovery area. It’s also important to detail your operations over people (OOP) mitigation methodology that should include either ensuring people not involved with the flight operation do not enter the operations area or the kinetic energy of the UAS is reduced to such a level that any impact with an unsheltered human is non-lethal.
Standard Operating Procedures and Limitations
Generally describe the following documentation, and reference where it is attached in the waiver submission packet:
● Standard Operating Procedures
● Flight Operations Manual
● Emergency Procedures
● Fleet Management System
● Maintenance Procedures
Risk Assessment and Mitigation
This adage in aviation summarizes risk mitigation aptly: “Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier.” The governing principle behind risk assessment and mitigation is to determine all possible risks that may arise in a flight operation and to have measures in place to mitigate these risks. These should be laid out in the CONOPs, and include a description of the risk as it is presented in the operation, followed by methods by which this risk is being addressed or mitigated. Examples of risks include avionics failure, flight planning errors, RPIC errors, and so on.
Intrinsic Ground Risk Class (GRC) and Mitigation
Intrinsic UAS ground risk relates to the risk of a person being struck by the UAS (in the case of loss of UAS control with a reasonable assumption of safety). A follow-up to this is the mitigation strategy to be used to prevent this (e.g. having a deployable parachute on the UAS, or by visually detecting and preventing ground intruders from entering the operational volume).
Air Risk Class (ARC) and Mitigation
Air Risk refers to airspace collision risks as present in the airspace in which the UAS is operating. The competent authority, ANSP, or UTM/U-space service provider, may elect to directly map the airspace collision risks using airspace characterization studies. These maps would directly show the initial Air Risk Class (ARC) for a particular airspace. The ARC is a qualitative classification of the rate at which a UAS would encounter a manned aircraft in typical generalized civil airspace. The ARC is an initial assignment of the aggregated collision risk for the airspace, before mitigations are applied.
A description of strategic mitigation steps taken to address air risk classes should be detailed out. These include steps like using pre-flight checklists to reduce the likelihood of component failure mid-air, ensuring flight paths don’t interfere with manned aviation operations, etc.
Tactical mitigation refers to the usage of detect-and-avoid (DAA) technology on-board the UAS in the event of BVLOS operations, or using a visual observer in the case of VLOS operations. For any BVLOS operation, avoiding both ADS-B cooperative and non-cooperative intruders is paramount. If DAA is used, the system outline and testing methods document for the DAA system is provided within the Safety Case Documentation.
Generalized Risk Mitigation
Additionally, the CONOPS should include strategies to reduce the overall risk of the operation by adopting general risk mitigation strategies, like the following:
- Operation restriction by boundary
2. Operation restriction by chronology, i.e. conducting operations during times of the day when traffic is demonstrated to be at the lowest density
3. Operation restriction by time exposure—this involves limiting the duration of transit of the UAS through high risk areas
4. Strategic mitigation by common flight rules—common CFR mitigation strategies include things like anti-collision lighting, filing flight plans, transponders, etc that enhance the overall safety of operations, similar to the use of a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM).
5. Strategic mitigation by Common Airspace Structure—these can take a number of shapes from designated airspace corridors to Unmanned Traffic Management systems separating aircraft during takeoff or holding patterns
Final Air Risk Classification (ARC) and Final Ground Risk Classifications (GRC)
Using the JARUS SORA methodology, a final ARC and GRC is determined. This is based on the intrinsic ARC and GRC as determined by the operations, but incorporates the reductions from the mitigation strategies taken to arrive at the Final ARC and GRC.
Specific Assurance Integrity Level (SAIL)
The SAIL is a way to turn the ARC and GRC into a single metric from which safety objectives can be assigned. Typically each ARC and GRC combination is mapped to a SAIL value.
Operational Safety Objectives (OSO)
Based on the SAIL determination, the SORA recommends a list of OSOs that should be met at a level of robustness corresponding to the appropriate SAIL. These OSOs provide guidance as to the recommended procedures, documentation, and training milestones necessary to ensure safe operations.
Feeling overwhelmed? We can help!
Iris Automation’s Regulatory Resource Center is your one-stop center for preparing your BVLOS program for regulatory compliance. It includes frameworks and methodologies you can use to create risk classifications, guidance on evaluating the performance of tactical mitigation, and has samples of how proposed operational, contingency, emergency, and ground risk buffer volumes should look.
The Regulatory Resource Center is an online tool supported by aviation policy experts providing consulting that manages the BVLOS waiver application process end-to-end for Casia system customers and other organizations looking to fly BVLOS. The RRC provides CAA access to successfully apply for BVLOS while reducing the overall time of approval. Iris Automation’s trusted aviation policy specialists have thousands of man-hours assessing operational risk and establishing compliant BVLOS flight operations with and without a DAA system.
Iris Automation’s Regulatory Resource Center includes a CONOPS with detailed templates, draft language, and suggestions.
JARUS guidelines on Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA)
Building your Operational Risk Assessment