NAAA UAV Policy and Developments

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) remain a persistently emerging threat to low-level aviators of all stripes, especially ag aviators. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (also known as the FAA Reauthorization Act) required the FAA to provide for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than September 2015 (2014 for UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds). Under the requirements of the FAA Reauthorization Act, the agency has faced difficulty in reaching many of the deadlines. After much delay the FAA recently met one of its most crucial deadlines, the selection and activation of six UAS test sites to study integration technologies. The six sites are locations in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.

One statistic frequently cited by the UAS industry regarding the potential for UAS in the NAS is that 90 percent of crop protection in Japan is done utilizing one UAS, the Yamaha RMAX. What many UAS proponents fail to mention is the fact that the average farm size is 3.7 acres in Japan compared to 441 acres in the United States. Further, the RMAX has a chemical capacity of 4.25 gallons of liquid compared to 300+ gallons in a manned agricultural aircraft and operates at 15 miles per hour compared to a 160 mph for a manned, turbine ag aircraft. Another point to consider when making an effective aerial application to protect a crop is that the amount of air pushed down to the crop canopy—either from a rotor or from a fixed wing—is exactly proportional to the weight of the aircraft that the air is holding up.  A small aircraft—manned or unmanned—does not displace much air.  While there are UAVs that could likely be retrofitted to perform aerial application operations, they are the larger, more expensive aircraft that can cost millions to build and maintain compared to a manned ag aircraft costing between hundreds of thousands of dollars to $1.5 million for the largest fully equipped 800 gallon models. Given these limitations, it is unlikely UAS will be utilized for mass aerial application in the US in the near future; however NAAA does acknowledge that UAS may be cost-effective in certain niche circumstances, such as small-scale vineyards and specialty crop situations, along with sensory applications.

The “no later than date” of Sept. 30, 2015 for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into NAS remains the FAA’s ultimate goal, but much will need to be accomplished in terms of alleviating safety and privacy fears. In between now and then the FAA still must release final rules regulating UAS and begin issuing licenses and certifications as well. In response to the FAA’s request for comments regarding the test sites, NAAA submitted comments and highlighted our concerns with maintaining access to airspace in the test area for treating crops while maintaining the safety of the aircraft. While the principal of “see and avoid” is the backbone of safety for our industry and all VFR air traffic, it can only be utilized effectively when other aircraft do their part in avoiding collisions. NAAA believes UAS should be equipped with some sort of transponder, such as ADS-B Out, and should be painted in colors which make it readily distinguishable from the background and a strobe light used to increase its conspicuousness as well. To ensure safe co-existence, the operation of these unmanned aircraft would also need to be done in a manner to ensure their separation from conventional aircraft operations, and high use areas should be noted through some sort of central database (discussed below). 

Along with other low-level obstacles, it will be similarly important for UAS to also be well lit, marked and have their operational activities made known to manned pilots of low-level aircraft via a similar database system as is already in use within the FAA for towers above 200 feet that these tower sponsors are required to register. A database for towers below 200 feet and perhaps expanding it to include UAS operations when they are allowed into the national airspace, would serve as another key safety benefit for low-level aviators and most certainly would mitigate accidents for these pilots. Furthermore, the training and licensing of UAS operators should be equally as stringent as that for aerial application pilots both in terms of obtaining commercial pilots’ licenses and commercial pesticide licenses (discussed below), as well as frequent upkeep of equipment. A number of recommendations for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) prepared by the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association (NDAAA) as presented by them to their test site partners, seem warranted. They are as follows:
NDAAA sUAS Operation Recommendations

  1. sUAS support vehicle equipped with white/clear strobe light that is activated when sUAS is operating
  2. sUAS operator attending/monitoring sUAS at all times and attentive to surroundings (no headphones, etc.)
  3. sUAS  will not operate above 400 feet AGL  
  4. sUAS operator is equipped with handheld aviation radio set to a dedicated nationwide frequency
  5. sUAS operator knows location of sUAS operation(s) by township name and section number
  6. sUAS operator procedure if agricultural aircraft is within two miles:
    • Immediately ground sUAS
    • UAS operator communicates to the agricultural aircraft pilot using the aforementioned dedicated frequency
    • If radio communication is successful, UAS operator & ag pilot determine plan
    •  If radio communication is not successful, sUAS remains grounded until ag aircraft is two miles away.
  7. UAS operator has a Communication Plan and Platform:  operator notifies agricultural spraying operations located in the sUAS flight area with either a call, group email or agreed upon method.
  8. sUAS operator is a commercial pilot or has similar training and can demonstrate knowledge of aviation safety and communication procedures (similar to FAA private pilot written exam)
  9. sUAS operator demonstrates proficiency at operating UAS (similar to pilot check ride)
  10. sUAS operator maintains “pilot in command” flight log and aircraft log
  11. sUAS operator maintains line-of-site operations (operates from a location that minimizes the furthest distance UAS is from operator)
  12. sUAS observer is present and able to communicate with operator (observing from a location that minimizes furthest distance sUAS is from observer)
  13. Liability insurance is required for sUAS operations: Liability insurance ensures that should these aircraft come into contact with persons or property, the injured party is justly compensated.

NDAAA sUAS Aircraft Recommendations

  1. Proven to be airworthy and operate autonomously without software glitches
  2. Equipped with redundant controls / systems
  3.  Painted a color that is highly visible
  4. Equipped with strobe lights
  5.  “ADS-B out” equipped (which would require agricultural aircraft to also be ADS-B In equipped) or require software that would emit a signal that could be picked up by a smartphone, computer or device with similar capabilities (develop an APP)
Just as manned aircraft pilots are required to undergo a rigorous training curriculum and show that they are fit to operate a commercial aircraft, so too must sUAS operators. Holding a commercial certificate holds sUAS operators to similar high standards as commercial aircraft operators and ensures they are aware of their responsibilities as commercial operators within the NAS. Requiring UAS operators to meet similar medical requirements ensure they have the necessary visual and mental acuity to operate a commercial aircraft repeatedly over a sustained period of time. Having a sUAS observer helps compensate for the last of “see and avoid” capabilities.

It is vital that commercial aircraft, manned and unmanned, receive airworthiness certification by the FAA to ensure they can safely operate in the NAS without posing a hazard to persons or property. ADS-B Out equipage, strobe lighting, and marking, as previously discussed, ensures the aircraft is visible to manned aircraft, law enforcement, the public and other UAS.

The FAA Reauthorization Act contains a Section 333 “Certain Rules for Special Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”  Beginning in spring of 2014 various companies and organizations wanting to use UAVs commercially filed petitions with the FAA under Sec. 333. The section requires the FAA to “determine if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the National Airspace System before completion of [final rulemaking].” The Agency is told to give consideration to size, weight, speed, and operational capability, among other areas when making this determination. According to the FAA they have received over 150 of these petitions and expect them to continue to flow in. Of the petitions received, the FAA has made a number of them available for public comment. NAAA has commented on 50 of these petitions, and will continue to comment on all applicable petitions, stressing that many of the exemptions these entities have requested—which include exemption from aircraft certification requirements—should not be allowed. The FAA responded to the first of these Section 333 petitions in September, 2014 by granting waivers from Federal Aviation Regulations for six film companies wishing to use UAVs to film movies on closed sets. Other stipulations of the UAV operations FAA announced were that the operator needs to have a private pilot certificate, fly the UAV within line of sight and a preflight inspection must be performed on the aircraft. FAA also prohibits the aircraft from flying at night until the petitioners explain how they would mitigate nighttime visibility concerns. NAAA filed comments registering safety concerns on these UAV exemption petitions requesting that among other things the FAA require the UAVs be operated by commercial pilots, be equipped with ADSB-Out, and be equipped with strobe lighting. The FAA responded directly to a number of NAAA’s concerns, including denying the petitioners request to not keep maintenance records, denying their request to not register the UAV with an N-number, and adding a requirement that the UAVs file NOTAMS 48 hours prior to each flight. The NOTAMS would contain the location (latitude and longitude), altitude, time and nature of the UAV operations. The FAA wrote in its response to the exemption that “NAAA maintains … that in addition to [submitting a plan of activities to the local FSDO] the issuance of a NOTAM advising nonparticipating pilots of the planned activities is vital to disseminating safety information. The FAA agrees and has incorporated this into the conditions and limitations of the exemption.”

Latest Developments

Unfortunately, the FAA did not adopt all of NAAA’s recommendations. The exemption contains no mention of ADS-B Out or strobes, although the Agency is prohibiting the UAV from engaging in night flights until they can prove how they would meet an equivalent level of safety to a manned aircraft.

 In regards to pilot qualifications, NAAA and other aviation groups asked that the Agency require a commercial pilot certificate of the UAV operator. The FAA chose to only require a private pilot certificate and third-class medical, saying that “FAA finds that the additional manned airmanship experience of a commercial certificated pilot would not correlate to the airmanship skills necessary for the proposed operation.”

In its comments, on all UAV petitions NAAA has also pushed for UAV safety integration requirements that include equipping the UAVs with strobes, ADS-B Out and operation only within line of sight. Further, NAAA encouraged the FAA to require a pilot certificate for commercial operation of UAVs, an “N number” to aid in identification of the aircraft in the event of an incident or accident, and for the FAA to establish airworthiness standards before certifying UAVs for commercial flight.

In March 2014 a ruling was passed down from an administrative law judge in the case of Pirker v. Huerta, saying the FAA lacks any clear-cut authority to regulate model aircraft (considered a type of UAV by the FAA). The FAA announced they are preparing to appeal the decision to the full National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NAAA submitted an amicus brief in support of the FAA on this decision.  This ruling stands as an unexpected development on the FAAs long path toward UAV integration.

The case involves Raphael Pirker, who was fined $10,000 for flying his remote controlled aircraft to film promotional videos for the University of Virginia Medical Center in a “careless or reckless manner,” including within feet of people, buildings, and a helipad used by the medical center. The FAA said Pirker’s flights ran afoul of FAA rules prohibiting the commercial use of UAVs. According to the agency and its interpretation of current federal statute on the subject, unmanned aircraft are permissible only for recreational use unless granted authorization by the FAA or until regulations for commercial use are developed by the FAA. NAAA concurred with this interpretation and filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the FAA.            

In November 2014 the NTSB issued a unanimous ruling determining that the statutory language defining aircraft was broad enough to encompass unmanned aircraft, and that the FAA has the sole authority to regulate all aircraft. The NTSB stated “this case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ’aircraft‘ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in [the Federal Aviation Regulations]. We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language [of the statute] that an “aircraft” is any “device” used for flight in the air.” The NTSB stated that this included “any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The NTSB further concluded that the FAA was within its regulatory rights to determine that the regulation prohibiting careless or reckless operations applied to unmanned aircraft just as it does to manned aircraft, and sent the case back to the administrative law judge to rule on whether the operation was indeed “careless or reckless.”

In August 2014 the FAA issued guidance regarding its interpretation of Sec. 336 of the 2012 Reauthorization that says the Agency does not have the authority to promulgate new regulations specific to model aircraft. Among other things, the guidance reiterates the FAA’s long standing belief that model aircraft should fly below 400 feet above ground level, notify airport operators and ATC when operating near airports, and maintain visual line of sight of the model aircraft. Model aircraft operators believe that this guidance subjects them to new regulations and have filed a lawsuit against the FAA. NAAA filed comments on the guidance in support of the FAA’s position of encouraging safe operation of UAVs.

NAAA has been active in the discussion surrounding UAS, as the ability of pilots to see and avoid other aircraft and hazardous obstructions is paramount to ensuring the safety of low-level aircraft pilots. As such, NAAA has met multiple times with both the FAA Obstruction Evaluation Group (OEG) as well as the UAS Integration Office. The Association has submitted correspondence to the OEG documenting low-level concerns as well as comments to the FAA regarding UAS test sites and privacy concerns. Additionally, NAAA was contacted by the NextGen Institute and participated in an interview regarding UAS and its impacts on agricultural aviation. NAAA submitted a letter to FAA Administrator Huerta urging the implementation of low-level marking, lighting and database development solutions for locating ground affixed and UAS obstacles.  In addition, NAAA requested the FAA require strobe lighting for UAS and standout painting for pilots of manned aircraft to easily see. NAAA has also been in contact with a number of congressional offices about its UAS concerns as well as the UAS trade association—the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). As mentioned above, NAAA has also been actively commenting on all Section 333 petitions, additionally, NAAA staff presented the industry’s position at the Delta AgTech Symposium in the spring of 2014. NAAA has also been regularly keeping members informed through articles in Agricultural Aviation magazine and the NAAA eNewsletter. In November 2014, NAAA staff and former president Brian Rau met with representatives from Office of Management and Budget (OMB), White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Security Council to discuss the small UAS rule while it is under review by OMB and shared NAAA’s safety concerns.

NAAA is aware of the important functions which can be accomplished by UAS, including those to agriculture, but protecting the safety of current and future users of the NAS is mandatory and top of mind for the agricultural aviation industry. Safely incorporating unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace is undoubtedly of utmost importance for manned aerial applicators since we will likely be working at similar altitudes. As aforesaid, NAAA has made our concerns known to FAA Administrator Huerta and requested that to ensure safe coexistence, UAS’ will need to be well lit, marked and have their operational activities made known to manned pilots of low-level aircraft via a similar database system as would be ideal for obstacles 50 feet or more in height, and Huerta acknowledged some of NAAA’s concerns in recent media appearances regarding the small UAS rule. NAAA is committed to working in tandem with UAS to ensure ag aviators are able to continue performing their jobs without the additional concerns of unidentified aircraft occupying the same airspace and potentially and unnecessarily endangering the safety of low-level ag pilots. 

Updated December 2014 

This document is intended for NAAA members’ review only. It is not intended for publication. NAAA requests that should any party desire to publish, distribute or quote any part of this document that they first seek the permission of the Association.