It’s a hot August day at the Maryland State Police Training Academy. The sun is shining bright and there’s a constant buzzing in the air. It’s not insects—though those are certainly out and about, as well—it’s small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), also known as drones.
Dozens of officials from across the country, spanning a variety of different federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, have gathered together for intensive training. The “Advanced Open/Obstructed Test Proctor Course for Evaluating Drone Capabilities and Remote Pilot Proficiency” was developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in conjunction with the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). The goal is right there in the title: evaluating capabilities and proficiency. Competent drone piloting is critical when lives are on the line; these devices are used in numerous law enforcement operations including search and rescue and counter IED (improvised explosive device) efforts.
“We first developed these test methods with the idea of helping the government to identify and test ground robots to make sure we have a standardized method and we’re buying the best,” explained S&T Standards Manager Kai-Dee Chu, PhD. “We have been using them to test drones for procurement purposes, and the first responders found out for themselves that these standardized test methods are even better than their training courses. So, they adopted these test methods and it’s just caught on like wildfire—not just in the United States, but now in Canada, in Korea, in Japan … the test methods are used by all these first responders.”
So far, this training has been offered three times—in California, Texas, and Maryland—since it was first introduced in January 2022, and it has led to more than 400 certified proctors. The next course offering will be in New Jersey this November. It consists of 24 hours of classroom and hands-on flight instruction over three days to “train the trainer,” so newly certified proctors can take what they’ve learned back to their home agencies and subsequently certify their drone operators. It’s a wonderful domino effect of enhanced officer expertise and increased public safety. The course follows NIST test methods that have been adopted, or are under consideration for adoption, by ASTM International, National Fire Protection Association, the Airborne Public Safety Accreditation Commission, the Civil Air Patrol, and many other federal, state, and local public safety organizations.
“When we started, there was no measurement science or standards infrastructure available to objectively evaluate drone capabilities or remote pilot proficiency, so we filled that void,” said Adam Jacoff, NIST project leader for Emergency Response Robots and chair of the ASTM E54.09 Subcommittee on Response Robots. “After helping to guide purchases, these standard tests then support credentialing of remote pilots. Although these drone test methods are specifically designed to help emergency responders and public safety organizations maintain a safe operational standoff while performing extremely hazardous tasks, they similarly support a wide variety of commercial and industrial applications. All pilots flying in the national air space need to demonstrate they can maintain positive aircraft control while performing operational tasks in complex and often hazardous environments.”
The course includes both open and obstructed test lanes, meaning with and without line-of-sight, as well as realistic operational scenarios—all using established assessment standards for scoring. Flights are conducted both during the day and at night so pilots can be ready for anything. As vigorous as it is, the tests are inexpensive (using equipment like plastic buckets available at any hardware store), easy to conduct, and require less than 30 minutes to complete. Attendees learned how to fabricate the test apparatuses, conduct trials, and embed the same scoring tasks into their own training scenarios. Upon completion, they know everything they need to replicate the course back at their home agencies.