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.
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, systems, procedures, mission, risk, and mitigation.
In this section you’d 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 towards 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
2. 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
3. What success looks like for your organization when completing the mission
4. 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)
5. 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
6. Mission overview that includes details on pilots, purpose, mission objectives, and any other high level information
7. 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, detail 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.
Check out Part 2 of this article here.
Iris Automation’s Regulatory Resource Center includes a CONOPS with detailed templates, draft language, and suggestions.