Safety is one of the most important aspects when it comes to the implementation of new and innovative technologies, and the same holds true for the drone industry. That’s likely why the ecosystem has spent years talking about the safety procedures for uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), which has continuously been a topic at every major event.
In fact, the approach towards safety procedures extends past just discussions about theoretical drone operations and applies to crewed aircraft as well; however, the standards are much higher when pilots are removed from the equation, which is likely why the technology for beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations has existed for so long, but regulations have taken years to catch up and ensure implementation is done correctly. In this article, we’ll cover everything that has to do with the specific operations risk assessment (SORA), which is the current industry process for measuring the risk of airborne operations in the industry.
When the lack of safety standards for the implementation of drones began to stop the progress of innovative new technologies from entering society, the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Uncrewed Systems (JARUS) developed the methodology called the specific operations risk assessment (SORA). This new methodology provided a framework for the safe implementation of drones in society, which also empowered uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) operators to use SORA to begin applying for authorisations.
SORA is currently used to systematically identify the risk of complex uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) operations within the specific category, which is reserved for more complex drone operations not included in the open category. The process of performing the SORA helps guide UAV operators and the relevant authorities by allowing acceptable risk into certain airspaces and implementing important risk mitigation strategies to systematically lower that risk.
The methodology was created to focus on assigning two different classes of risk to UAS operations. The first is a ground risk class (GRC) and the second is an air risk class (ARC). By combining these, an operator will be able to implement different types of mitigations to lower the overall risk and stay within the boundaries of acceptable risk that are determined by the authorities.
SORA has proven to be incredibly effective in protecting communities and keeping the risk for UAS operations within acceptable limits and has allowed the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to begin using it as a framework for the various Civil Aviation Authorities across Europe who are starting to open their airspaces to commercial UAV operators.
Above, we mentioned that the specific operations risk assessment (SORA) was created by a group called the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Uncrewed Systems (JARUS), where leading aviation professionals come together to determine and establish regulations and frameworks for safe aviation procedures. So, while it isn’t necessarily an authority, it’s also not an industry or private stakeholder.
The different working groups at JARUS come together to improve SORA and all of its related annexes when needed to release new versions of the methodology. Each version of the document is more comprehensive than the ones that came before and better reflects both the government and commercial stakeholders currently looking to it for guidance.
The reviewing process happens when each working group in JARUS begins to comment on the current version of SORA and then discusses the comments that are made and if they should be implemented or not. It’s a collaborative effort across sectors on a scale that many professionals haven’t seen before, which is what makes JARUS so impressive. SORA 2.0 is currently being replaced with SORA 2.5, which will be released shortly.
It highlights the flexibility that regulatory frameworks are capable of taking on and how people across industries and sectors can work together to provide better standards as a whole. Each working group will bring their own perspective and experiences to the discussions as well.
The specific operations risk assessment (SORA) is incredibly important for the aviation industry because the former aviation regulations weren’t able to account for the risk of drone operations. The strategies for crewed aviation, including the relevant risk management tools, assessments, technologies and so on, had a large blind spot when it came to uncrewed aviation.
For many authorities, not having a pilot on board to take directions from air traffic controllers or to mitigate risk if the connection was lost or an emergency happened left a lot of people thinking about the worst-case scenarios for what could happen. For small consumer photography drones, an accident might be an unfortunate experience, but for aviation professionals, they were imagining uncrewed drones the size of military jets being flown successfully by AI.
There are also other things that need to be considered with drones as well that don’t impact traditional crewed aviation to the same extent, like cybersecurity issues or problems that naturally occur when flying in lower airspaces like mountains, hills and tall buildings.
One really interesting thing about the drone industry is that many in the traditional tech industry (imagine silicon valley) assume that they can just make a drone and start providing their products and services to others. The problem is that while drones are a tech product/service, they’re being implemented in the middle of the rest of the aviation industry, which operates much differently than traditional silicon valley tech companies do.
So, new start-ups typically come in thinking that their biggest problem is going to be developing a drone that flies and is actually capable of doing what they want it to do, but that’s actually the first step in a much longer journey, which is why they need to start thinking about SORA from the beginning and integrating it into their internal strategies; otherwise, they’ll be sitting there with a minimal viable product (MVP), which might be a drone, controller, software or something similar and realise that without approvals, it’s essentially useless since they can’t go to market with it.
If they think of the drone industry as a mix between tech and aviation, they’ll know that going through their product development and implementation roadmaps means integrating each step of SORA into a go-to-market strategy. The goal isn’t to see aviation as the problem either because each regulation exists for a reason, so it’s a good idea to get into the mindset of seeing SORA as a way of implementing incredibly advanced technology safely into new airspaces and avoiding potential disasters with non-viable products.
It’s also important to take a moment to look at things through the eyes of governments. Imagine that you’re a city official tasked with keeping your community safe, and drone companies are all coming to you at the same time asking for approvals. For one drone company delivering medical samples between hospitals and laboratories, this is probably fine. You could imagine drones carrying boxes between set corridors pretty easily, but these corridors aren’t scalable and prevent new organisations from entering the market, which isn’t a viable solution.
So, what would the scalable option look like that’s not pure chaos? Well, it took the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) until January 2023 to be able to answer this question when they implemented new U-space regulations, which divided the airspace into sections and set up regulatory requirements for commercial organisations and governments to understand the implementation of drones at scale.
This not only requires different U-space service providers (USSPs) but various certifications as well, like the type certification (TC) or the design verification (DV). Without these authorisations and certifications, governments couldn’t be sure if a product was viable or not, so what might look like needless regulations are actually important safety standards to keep in mind.
U-space, type certification, design verification — for those outside of the aviation industry, this can all sound incredibly confusing, which is why a lot of organisations are looking towards consultants for the answers. While we won’t explain everything in this article, we can offer a brief overview of how the specific operations risk assessment (SORA) plays a role in keeping our skies safe.
SORA represents an iterative process that’s composed of 10 different steps that are as follows:
The concept of operations (ConOps) is the collecting and presenting of everything related to an organisation’s system and operations to the relevant authority to highlight its purpose and use. The relevant authority would read through the ConOps documentation and then use it to grant approval or not.
This is where an organisation would determine the inherent or intrinsic ground risk of their operations. So, if they were flying over an area without people, buildings or other things, they would have a low intrinsic ground risk class. If the opposite were true, they would have a high intrinsic ground risk class.
This step would be determined after different mitigations are put in place to avoid certain risky scenarios to determine the final ground risk class.
Like the intrinsic ground risk class, the initial air risk class would be a similar process. So, before each operation, a UAV operator would look at factors like who else would be flying in the same airspace at the time or possible storms to calculate the initial air risk class of the operation.
Just like step three where the final ground risk class is determined through mitigation techniques, strategic mitigations for the air risk class can be performed before the operation is airborne to mitigate these risks. So, if a drone is water resistant, that would be a strategic mitigation for poor weather conditions.
Tactical mitigations, on the other hand, are mitigations that are performed in the air, so if a drone is programmed to hover when the connection to the control station is lost, detect and avoid objects or is programmed to fly back home, these would both be in the middle of an airborne operation and thus be classified as tactical mitigations.
By crossing the final air risk class (ARC) with the final ground risk class (GRC), an organisation will see their final specific assurance and integrity level (SAIL) and the relevant operational safety objectives.
This step will identify each of the required operational safety objectives for an organisation’s operational SAIL.
The primary aim of this step is to mitigate the potential risk that could arise due to loss of control during operations, leading to encroachment on adjacent airspace and/or areas on the ground. It is important to note that these areas may differ depending on the specific phase of the flight, and the focus is to develop strategies that enable effective control of these variables to ensure safe operations.
Once all steps in the specific operations risk assessment (SORA) have been completed, an organisation can compile all of the information in a comprehensive safety portfolio.
The acceptable means of compliance and guidance materials (AMC/GM) were created to help guide organisations through this process. The guidance material aims to simplify the process, but oftentimes, organisations find themselves confused by the difficult wording in the document and the knowledge/experience required to understand it, which is why consulting agencies in the industry have begun to surface.
DroneTalks also offers a 2-day intensive course for those looking to learn more about implementing SORA into their organisation for approvals with various civil aviation authorities. See more under our services.
The practical implementation of SORA becomes a bit more difficult since it is a methodology, or a strategy, for organisations to use to assess the risk of their operations in addition to developing mitigation strategies to reduce that risk to a point where it is acceptable to have in a given airspace.
While many regulators use SORA to understand what the acceptable risk for airspace would be, these are just guidelines that have been created by JARUS, which is not an authority. An authority might use the SORA guidelines for an initial assessment, but they might come back with questions or requests for an organisation to ask for clarification or additional testing before they can decide to grant approval.
The goal of JARUS is to collect information from the various approval processes for uncrewed airborne operations over time and use this information to update the SORA methodology accordingly, so organisations won’t have to go through additional testing in the future, which is why SORA is an iterative process and also not a regulation from an authority. That’s why organisations can be confident that when they complete the SORA process, they might only be asked for small additional things afterwards, which rarely, if ever, have a large impact on overall strategic goals.
That’s why, once an organisation has completed the SORA process, they’re almost ready to fly.
Each civil aviation authority has the power to accept or reject an application from an organisation, and the process that they implement to do this can range significantly. For example, in Germany, they require that organisations have an initial discussion with them. During this initial discussion, an organisation is expected to walk the authority through their estimated SORA.
The discussion generally covers an overview of the aircraft and related technologies. They will also go over the estimated population density where the operations will take place and the assumed safety assurance integrity level (SAIL) that will come out of the process.
After the organisation gives their initial estimate, the authority will either agree or disagree. If they agree, it means that an organisation is on track to complete their SORA properly, but if the authority disagrees, it saves the organisation and the authority time going through a lengthy process of collecting and establishing documentation for an incorrect SAIL.
After the authority and the organisation are on the same page, the process of establishing the safety portfolio can begin.
We’ve mentioned the safety assurance and integrity levels (SAILs) a few times in this article, and they’re an essential part of understanding the SORA methodology. There are six different SAILs that an operation can fall under, and the higher the SAIL, the higher the risk is. That means the opposite is also true though, so the lower the SAIL, the lower the risk.
At the moment, most organisations attempt to fly at SAIL IV but end up dropping down to SAIL II, which is easier to receive approval for. The process of aiming for SAIL IV, dropping down to SAIL II, also means most major players in the industry are trying to find a way to get to SAIL III, which can be seen as the next forefront for the ecosystem.
To give an example of this, an organisation might envision itself in the middle of a major city centre delivering food for Uber Eats or a similar service. They quickly find out that they’ll need many more requirements to start airborne operations than expected, so they switch their organisational strategy to start in suburban areas, which still helps further their goals, but it means operating at SAIL II (suburban delivery) until they can get approval for SAIL III (urban delivery).
The SAIL of an operation depends on a number of factors, like if they are flying heavy drones over people or frequently flying over critical infrastructure, so it can become very difficult very quickly when an organisation looks at their operational goals at scale.
SAIL V and SAIL VI essentially mean the operations are pretty risky, and that level of risk is so far out currently that it would be hard to accurately estimate what sort of operation that would encompass. Most companies aiming for SAIL IV right now don’t reach their goals and are being forced to operate at SAIL II to be able to reach SAIL III, so SAIL V and VI are based pretty solidly in the future.
It’s also good to think of the SAILs as how much risk an authority feels comfortable in accepting, which is a cultural process as much as a regulatory one. They’re comfortable with SAIL I/II right now, and we’re working together on building SAIL III, so we can meet the current goal of SAIL IV. If an organisation came in with a SAIL VI operation, it would be outside of the current scope that the SORA methodology can handle, so they would likely need to dramatically change their operational goals.
Just for the sake of speaking in favour of the current regulations and the competency of our aviation authorities, try to imagine that you were in charge of a major urban environment and a company came to you to ask you to fly an uncrewed aerial vehicle. It would be the size of a small cargo plane and carry heavy packages over critical infrastructure and hundreds of people in a crowded city. Even with the best and safest technology available, it’s going to take time before people feel safe with an uncrewed aircraft of that size in certain airspaces.
The industry is still young, and things are developing at a rapid pace. As industry stakeholders begin working together to define new regulations and ways of working, it means more and more drones will be entering society. This is something that has happened with each major technological advancement from the invention of cars to the invention of computers. There will always be a level of uncertainty and backlash until people gradually begin to feel comfortable with the change.
The same can be said about drones. Right now, we don’t see many drones in the sky, and in the cases where we do see them, it tends to be in less populated areas or for consumer purposes like photography. Eventually, small drone operations will begin to emerge in communities and help people see the benefit that drones can bring to their lives.
It might be as simple as ordering a grocery delivery drone to avoid going to the store in the rain, or it might be as important as a medical drone delivering life-saving blood for an emergency surgery across the country. The next few decades represent a shift for societies as these technologies begin to make their way into our lives.
Aurélie Joy Pascual-Werner is a senior operational authorisations consultant who has years of experience in risk management and mitigation strategies from her time as an environmental risk engineer at the University of Iceland and Lund University. After bringing this experience into the aviation industry, she successfully became flight director for Matternet to help them conduct BVLOS operations in Switzerland before joining Murzilli Consulting.
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