Unmanned aircraft systems could cause trouble for ag aviators in the sky


By Jennifer M. Latzke

On Feb. 15, the Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration proposed a framework of regulations that would allow certain small unmanned aircraft systems to be used in today’s aviation system, while still allowing flexibility to accommodate future technical advancements.

The safety rules are for small UAS under 55 pounds that are in non-recreational operation. The proposed rule would, according to the FAA, limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It gives height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking and operational limits, according to the FAA release.

The proposed new rule proposes operating limitations that should minimize risks to other aircraft, people and property, such as requiring the operator to always see and avoid manned aircraft, and if there is a risk of a collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away and discontinue the flight if continuing would pose a hazard to aircraft, people or property.

Shane Root, president of the Kansas Agricultural Aviation Association, said UAS can pose large risks to aerial applicators. At the speeds and heights that aerial applicators are flying for their application requirements, a pilot can’t always see a small drone, Root said.

“When you impact with a drone, it can go into the intake, where the engine ingests it and can create a half a million dollars worth of damage,” he said. “If it got into the propellers, hitting it at that speed would cause damage to a plane. Damage a pilot might not walk away from.”

While the FAA proposed rules for UAS state operators must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people in case he or she loses control of the UAS, and they may not fly in airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas and comply with FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions, that’s little help to the aerial applicator spraying a field in rural Kansas. As Root explained, many new aerial application aircraft are now so quiet that you don’t notice them until they are right above you.

“There are families that buy these for their kids, and they want to go out into the country to fly their drones where they assume no one is around,” Root said. “But are they checking with anyone that we are in the air?”

What Root and his fellow aviators are asking for is common sense to regulations regarding the use of UAS in rural areas. The National Agricultural Aviation Association supports the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System, in the event that they provide an equivalent level of safety to having a pilot onboard, according to the NAAA website.

“This includes requiring line of sight operation, installation of an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out technology, strobe lighting, aviation orange and white marking to promote visibility and other measures to ensure proper operation and awareness by manned low-level aviation operations,” according to the NAAA website. What ag aviators would like most to see is UAS equipped, at a minimum, with strobe lights and the ADS-B Out technology, so that they are better able to see them in the sky. For now, FAA is holding off on this requirement, instead placing the burden of the see-and-avoid on UAS operators because they are smaller and more easily maneuvered out of the way from larger aircraft. What could help ag aviators in getting strobes mandated on all UAS is for pilots to report any near-miss encounters with drones to their local Flight Standards District Office as well as to NAAA so that the data shows there is a need for strobes.

Aerial applicators embrace technology in their businesses and many realize the practicality of drones in commercial agricultural applications, Root said. Whether they are used for plotting variable rate applications using infrared imaging, or checking for water usage of a crop, there are ways UAS can help farmers of the future. Root and his fellow pilots just want to be sure that everyone is safe when these UAS take to the skies in rural areas where they operate.

Public comments for the proposed UAS rules are open until April 24. The full text of the proposed rule can be found online here: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-02-23/pdf/2015-03544.pdf. An overview of the Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking can be found online here:http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/media/021515_sUAS_Summary.pdf.

For more information on the NAAA’s positions, visit www.agaviation.org.