Safety behaviors human factors

Safety Behaviours Human Factors in RPAS Operations

Safety behaviours and human factors. CASA provided a  series of booklets and videos titled “Safety behaviours: human factors for pilots” in 2019. Although the resources are clearly intended for manned pilots, which seems somewhat short-sighted as the use of drones was well established by 2019, it offers the unmanned pilot a clear insight into how they can be a better aviator and pilot. 

In the introductory booklet, it is stated that “The term ‘human factors’ refers to the wide range of issues affecting how people perform tasks in their work and non-work environments. The study of human factors involves applying knowledge about the human body and mind to better understand human capabilities and limitations, so there is the best possible fit between people and the systems in which they operate. Human factors are the social and personal skills (for example communication and decision making) which complement technical skills. Understanding and applying human factors is crucial for safety because of the continued threat of accidents.” As drone systems become more capable and complex but highly automated, some people perceive this makes them simple to operate. The reality is that the errors that occur will more frequently be related to the way the man and the machine interface and the way these in turn interface with an organisations safety culture. 

Autonomy and automation are great and does prevent some accidents: Would this man be alive if it had been any other car?  Man sleeping at the wheel of Tesla car who subsequently failed a blood alcohol test. However, it is not just drivers of cars that have been falling asleep, there have been numerous reports of pilots falling asleep and allowing automation to take over: Pilot falls asleep and flies 78kms past destination or Pilot loses consciousness or falls asleep. Other pilots are so bored they have resorted to writing or drawing messages in the “sky” which can be seen on flight following services.

Human Factors RPAs

Image courtesy of Flightradar24

Finally, a Vapor 55 RPA was incorrectly programmed and flew off never to be seen again; see ATSB report.

Vapor 55 UAV Helicopter

Vapor 55 UAV Helicopter

These events, it could be said, all show human factor considerations such as:

  1. Effects of fatigue, diet and alcohol on operators performance
  2. Automation took over and was completely unmonitored by the operator. Although an incident did not occur the outcome was not what was intended.
  3. Pilots displayed low levels of arousal or stress
  4. Pilots placed a high reliance on GNSS for navigation
  5. Pilots performed non-essential tasks to remain engaged with the aircraft
  6. Inadequate cross-checks and mission planning

The unmanned aviation sector doesn’t have to learn the lessons for itself but can learn from manned aviation. The endurance and incredible levels of automation of some High Altitude Pseudo Satellite (HAPS) RPAS and Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) RPA indicate how some sectors of the unmanned industry have changed the role of pilots/operators. However, even licenced operators of small and medium-size RPAs are starting to regularly conduct complex BVLOS and EVLOS operations over urban and rural areas. These operations will be conducted more safely and cost-effectively if human factor principles are adopted. 

The CASA booklets are a great resource and worth a read to see what fits your business. There are plenty of other good Human Factor resources but these are free and available as either a download or as a hardcopy from CASA. What are some easy actions that any pilot or organisation can implement:

  1. An organisation must recognise which of the 5 stages of safety culture evolution (pathological, reactive, calculative, proactive, generative) it is currently performing at and strive to improve its safety culture. All organisations must embrace a just culture where there is an atmosphere of trust, and people are encouraged or even rewarded for providing essential safety-related information, but there is also a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (i.e. fair and just culture).
  2. Underarousal is as dangerous as overarousalPerformance and mental arousal
  3. Adopt the ‘I’m Safe’ checklist to assess your readiness to fly.
    Illness—am I suffering from any illness or do I have any symptoms?
    Medication—am I currently taking any prescription or over-the-counter drugs?
    Stress—am I worried about anything?
    Alcohol—what has been my alcohol consumption over the last 24 hours?
    Fatigue—have I had sufficient sleep?
    Eating/emotion—have I had enough to eat and how is my emotional wellbeing?
  4. Use the most appropriate verbal and non-verbal communications to pass a message quickly and accurately that meets the needs of both sender and receiver. Remember facial expressions, gestures, tone, volume, eye gaze, touch will all communicate something and can reinforce words.
  5. A team is ‘a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goal and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable’. Typical characteristics of a high-performance team are:
  • Participative leadership
  • Effective decision making
  • Open and clear communication
  • Valued diversity
  • Mutual trust
  • Managing conflict
  • Clear goals—goals that are developed using SMART (specific, measurable, accountable, reasonable and timely) criteria.
  • Defined roles and responsibilities
  • Coordinative relationship
  • Positive atmosphere


6. Having good situational awareness is critical in conducting safe operations and involves an accurate understanding of what is going on around you, and what is likely to happen next. The 3 key processes for gaining situational awareness are:

  • perception (scanning, gathering data) of what is happening
  • understanding what has been perceived (comprehension)
  • using what has been understood to think ahead (projection)


7. The best decisions are made when pilots:

  • break things down into chunks (smaller and more manageable pieces) and prioritise what to do next
  • have access to all available information which helps avoid incorrect assumptions
  • are fully prepared for each flight meaning they are less likely to have to make decisions on the run and will be better at anticipating what’s coming.
  • Understand that decision making is directly linked with situational awareness


8. A decision-making acronym provides a sequence or process-driven approach to help in decision making. Next time you are faced with an aviation decision, try using the acronym AGRADE.

  • Aviate
  • Gather information
  • Review the information
  • Analyse your options
  • Decide
  • Evaluate the course of action


Safety behaviours: human factors for pilots 


The safety behaviours and human factors associated with operating conventionally piloted aircraft have taken many years to be truly considered and were often in response to accidents and incidents. Factors outside the pilot’s immediate workplace have been factored in as it became apparent that what a pilot does away from the cockpit has a direct effect on what the pilot does inside the cockpit. As the capabilities of RPAS platforms increase, with every iteration, it is essential to start developing safety behaviours based on human factor considerations into our everyday RPAS operations. The control station of an unmanned aircraft is a workplace that is neither a standard cockpit nor a conventional office workspace. Therefore, a need exists to first understand what unique safety behaviours, cultural and human factors are in existence for your operation and develop specific procedures and requirements. This will ensure safety behaviours and human factors are prioritised and that the mission crew are always “flying” the RPA and not just staring at a screen. Should your organisation need assistance in developing such procedures or support obtaining approval such as BVLOS, EVLOS or any other complex approvals please do not hesitate to gain contact with Hover UAV.