One of the world’s largest associations for agricultural aircraft has issued a warning to drone operators to be cautious about low-flying crop dusters.
The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), which represents more than 1,900 members in 46 states of America and supports the interests of pilots licensed as professional commercial aerial applicators, fears there could be a collision if stringent safety measures aren’t followed.
With more than one million UAVs registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, the NAAA insists it is vitally important for UAV operators to be aware of agricultural aircraft operations this growing season, particularly after a number of incidents in the past 12 months.
One highly publicised near-miss last year saw a quadcopter UAV fly under the wing of an ag aircraft in Iowa before the pilot could take evasive action.
Agricultural aviators fly as low as 10 feet off the ground, meaning they share airspace with UAVs that are limited to flying no more than 400 feet above ground level.
The NAA has therefore released a statement asking UAV operators to do everything they can to avoid ag aircraft carrying out 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,” explained Andrew Moore, executive director of the NAAA. “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 Federal Aviation Administration for UAV 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 UAV operations in rural areas.
NAAA recommends that UAV operators equip drones with tracking technology, such as ADS-B, so other aircraft similarly equipped know of their positions; get certified and well-trained in operating a UAV; and contact local agricultural aviation operations before flying.
It has also advised operators to equip UAVs with visible strobe lights, land their UAV immediately when a low-flying aircraft is nearby and 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, UAVs 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 UAV collisions with aircraft would cause more damage than a bird strike of similar size, due partially to UAVs’ dense motors and batteries, as opposed to a bird made mostly of water, feathers, hollow bones and sinew.