Eyes often light up at the thought of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs – or drones) assisting farm operations. Aerial imaging, sensing technologies, even spray applications have proven successful as more and more of the devices take to the air.
But for aerial applicators the UAVs pose just one more hazard they must avoid.
In late September, Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, spoke with Delta Farm Press about current and future regulations governing UAVS and the pressing concerns of ag pilots.
On the bottom line…
“The bottom line is our concerns with UAVs are from a safety standpoint. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules don’t really provide any measure for UAV safety from the perspective of a manned aircraft pilot.
“There are no requirements to equip UAVs with visible strobes. There is also no requirement for tracking technologies -- like ADS-B systems -- that would give pilots in the cockpit a heads up that one is in the vicinity. The avionics in the cockpit need to be telling the pilot ‘hey, there’s something a half-mile in X direction.’
“This is true for the UAV FAA requirements for Section 333s – exemptions for federal air regulations, being done on a temporary basis until a final rule comes out. The proposed rule for small UAVs came out in February followed by a 60-day comment period. They’re mulling over the comments right now.
“However, as I said, in those rules there are no provisions that make UAVs any more visible or detectable for manned aircraft.”
On further concerns…
“When aerial applications are being made, our pilots are flying at very low altitudes – sometimes 10 feet, or lower, from the crop canopy. That’s even true when we’re ferrying to a field at about 500 feet from the loading part of the operation.
“If UAV study projections are accurate, there will be a lot of UAVs doing crop sensing and aerial imaging in that same altitude zone. That’s a major concern for our pilots.
“We also believe the FAA set the bar very low in how operating requirements for UAVs. All you have to do is take a written test. There is no demonstration of being able to operate them.
“In the Sections 333s that have been granted, they do require a sporting license. Not only should the UAV operators be well-versed in federal air regulations but they should be required to show they can operate them.
“To get a license, aerial applicators must show they can operate their planes. I mean, you have to show you can drive a car when getting a license.”
Safety vs. competition
On safety versus competition…
“Again, this is a safety concern not a competitive one. There’s nothing currently that shows UAVs would replace aerial applicators. True, there are a few models out there like the Yamaha RMAX. But it only carries around 4 gallons and flies at 15 miles per hour. That works well for, say, Japanese agriculture where the average farm is 3.5 acres.
“In the United States, the average farm is 300 or 400 acres-plus. So, small UAVs just can’t do the job.
“Plus there’s efficacy concerns. Physics tells us that the proportion of applied material and how it is pushed into the crop canopy is directly related to weight of the aircraft and the wing, or rotor.
“Some of our aerial applicators may be looking at employing UAVs to do crop sensing or imaging for farmers. Regardless, our recommendation is they must have strobes and tracking systems.”
There’s justifiable concern about UAVs flying over airports. But it’s striking that ag pilots, who already have so many obstacles to avoid, aren’t given the same concerns from lawmakers and regulators. Do they just not understand the issues? Is it a matter of education?
“Those are good questions. Over the last two years, the majority of our time as an association has been focused on getting this message out.
“The FAA is currently writing the new rule. Congress, meanwhile, is debating an FAA reauthorization bill and we’re certainly letting them know our concerns.
“There’s an interesting bill -- the Consumer Drone Safety Act -- being offered by California Sen. Diane Feinstein that would require a lot of the safety technologies to be employed by UAVs. Of course, Congress isn’t as functional as it could be at the moment. That means we’ll probably see a delay in the FAA reauthorization bill among other things.
“The FAA does have a rule in their Section 333 exemption approvals and their small UAV rule saying that manned aircraft takes precedence. That means UAVs must give manned aircraft the right of way. That should certainly be the case.”
On the rise of untrained UAV users…
“The thing is the FAA’s hands are somewhat tied on this. They only have jurisdiction over commercial use of UAVs not the recreational use. The hobbyists aren’t covered and that’s worrisome because they can just buy a UAV, take it out of the box and send it up.
“As it’s becoming easier and easier to just pick a UAV off the shelf, there’s a wider range of consumers in the market. Those consumers aren’t the ‘professional hobbyists’ of the past. They’re much more unlikely to know what the rules for use are. They may not even know there are rules and that helps explain the number of near misses that manned airplanes have had with them.
“In fact, the Washington Post pulled some stats together in August showing there had been nearly 700 such incidents involving drones in 2015. That’s triple the number for 2014 – and that was only through August.”
On how much damage a UAV might cause to an aerial applicator airplane…
“Our aerial applicators have had two near misses with a UAV. Those occurred in 2014.
“Our pilots must be protected. If the UAV industry wants to be reputable down the road, put the safety features on now. You can’t wait until there’s a collision with manned aircraft. Do it from the outset.
“Our pilots are facing all kinds of danger. They fly under wires, there are towers to avoid, telephone poles. We’ve been pushing for the marking of towers that are under 200 feet. Over the past 10 years, 15.5 percent of our collisions have been with wires. There have been 12 total accidents – five of them fatal – from collisions with towers.
“There are also bird strikes. We’ve had mallards come through cockpit windows. Well, those birds might weigh four pounds. To put that in perspective, the small UAV rule would allow 100-mile-per-hour flights for devices up to 55 pounds.”