With more than 1 million drones registered with the FAA, it is vitally important for unmanned aerial vehicle operators to be aware of agricultural aircraft operations this growing season, according to officials with the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA).
Thankfully, a vast majority of drone users operate in a responsible manner, but since last year the aviation community has seen a number of incidents, including drones colliding with a military helicopter over Staten Island, N.Y., and a commercial aircraft near Quebec City, Canada.
There was also a highly publicized near miss between an ag aircraft and a drone last summer in Iowa. As the ag pilot was passing through about 350′ AGL, a quadcopter drone flew under his wing before he could take evasive action.
Agricultural aviators fly as low as 10′ off the ground, meaning they share airspace with drones that are limited to flying no more than 400′ above ground level. For this reason, the NAAA is asking drone operators to do everything they can to avoid ag aircraft doing important, low-level work.
“It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for agricultural aviators to see UAVs because our members are doing precision agricultural work while flying at speeds of up to 140 mph,” NAAA Executive Director Andrew Moore said. “That’s why it’s so important for UAV operators to be aware of agricultural aviation operations in their area and take precautions to protect individuals both in the air and on the ground.”
In addition to lobbying Congress and the FAA for regulations that protect agricultural aviators and other low-flying manned aircraft, NAAA has enlisted its members and state association partners to help educate farmers, crop consultants, ag retailers and the public about safe and responsible drone operations in rural areas.
NAAA recommends that drone operators:
- Equip drones with tracking technology, such as ADS-B, so other aircraft similiarly equipped know of their positions.
- Get certified and well-trained in operating a UAV.
- Contact local agricultural aviation operations before flying by consulting AgAviation.org/findapplicator.
- Equip UAVs with visible strobe lights.
- Give the right-of-way to a manned aircraft. It’s the law.
- Land your UAV immediately when a low-flying aircraft is nearby.
- Carry UAV liability insurance.
In a test conducted by the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association and other stakeholders, including manned and unmanned aircraft organizations, and the state of Colorado, no pilot operating a manned aircraft could continuously visually track a 28-inch-wide drone when flying at regular speeds. While they might be spotted for a second, drones are not constantly visible to pilots, meaning it’s up to the drone operator to avoid a collision.
When birds hit an ag aircraft, they can break through an aircraft’s windshield causing deadly accidents.
A study conducted by the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) showed drone collisions with aircraft cause more damage than a bird strike of similar size, due partially to the drones’ dense motors and batteries, as opposed to a bird made mostly of water, feathers, hollow bones, and sinew.