Effectively managing a fleet of remote sensing aircraft requires an emphasis on planning and attention to detail. We must strike the balance between meeting client schedules and capturing high-quality data within budget. Success hinges on four elements working seamlessly together – a sensor, an aircraft, a crew to operate both, and some cooperation from Mother Nature.
By owning multiple sensors and aircraft options, Atlantic can provide clients a variety of solutions that ensure an accurate product at the best price. We have the capability to fly slower at lower altitudes to meet specifications unachievable by some competitors or fly higher and faster for a quicker delivery than most firms are able to meet. This flexibility, while beneficial to clients, poses some challenges in overseeing the operations of our fleet of aircraft. Currently Atlantic has five mission ready remote sensing aircraft; a Cessna T-210, a Piper PA-31-350, a Partenavia P-68C/TC, a Twin Commander 690B and a Barron 58. Supervising the maintenance and inspections on multiple aircraft requires constant attention; therefore, we recently teamed with Skyline Aviation at Huntsville International Airport to assist in maintaining our fleet. This investment in scheduled maintenance means our aircraft are operating most efficiently while reducing the overall repairs hours; thus, saving Atlantic both time and money.
The pairing process for sensor and aircraft combinations must be carefully thought out. Mounting a sensor in an aircraft must be the best compromise based on an equation of the dimensions and weight of the sensors as well as the operating costs of each aircraft. For example, utilizing a smaller aircraft may be less expensive to operate; however, there is an increase in limitations in regards to which sensors those aircraft can carry. On the other hand, utilizing a larger aircraft with two engines is capable of carrying a variety of larger sensors but will naturally be more expensive. Additionally, the type of aircraft used for carrying a larger sensor requires a more experienced pilot. The FAA requires more experienced pilots to fly the larger and more complex aircraft. Nevertheless, pilots who meet this FAA requirement typically results in additional increase in costs than the less experienced pilots. By design, aircraft have varying amounts of payload and interior space, so modifying an aircraft to accommodate a sensor requires carefully weighing the options to determine the best combination of aircraft and sensor to meet clients’ needs.
Hiring well-trained and highly technical sensor operators is another key factor in making certain our sensors are calibrated, operating properly and mission-ready. At Atlantic, we focus on routine maintenance, custom calibrations, and detailed project planning to stay ahead of potential issues. On site, we utilize pre- and post-mission checklists as well as continuously monitoring data in-flight to catch and correct any errors. Those extra efforts help us massage out systematic errors and troubleshoot potential problems before they become detrimental, which in turn reduces the repetition of work for our team. Lastly, if an issue arises that our team is unable to solve, support from our sensor manufacturer is a phone call away.
Managing pilots and sensor operators poses a different challenge. Pilots are hired based on their experience and their willingness to fly the unique missions required; remote sensing involves flying precise, straight and level lines through the sky. This repetitive flying 4-8 hours a day is often fatiguing after a few weeks, so pilots and sensor operators may suffer from burn out. Managing their fatigue requires a rotating pool of pilots and operators; yet, mobilizing a team between mission sites can also be an added operating cost, so we must carefully consider the balance.
The most frustrating component of managing remote sensing flying is something we deal with daily – the weather. Since we cannot control Mother Nature, we must continually monitor and create solutions to offer Atlantic the best chance to be airborne at a moment’s notice. In addition to monitoring the weather for a specific time, we look at patterns to help predict our chances for a clearing to fly. We must carefully weigh the time, effort, and money to get a crew and aircraft at a mission site against predicted weather conditions.
Balancing the operating cost of aircraft, pilots, sensor operators, and sensor equipment for projects requires extensive planning and attention to the smallest detail. While we face many challenges, managing a fleet of remote sensing aircraft is very rewarding. When Mother Nature cooperates and all the hard work of the team comes together, we have collected a great base for our clients geospatial needs.