Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aircraft (UA) or drones are a safety threat to low-altitude aviators, especially ag aviators, if operated carelessly. NAAA believes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to take a measured, incremental approach to safely integrate UAS into the National Airspace (NAS). This means that the Agency needs to fully assess the risk of UAS to crewed aircraft as they incrementally open the airspace to UAS. The Association will continue to promote and assert the safety of of its member operators and pilots above all other interests.

For UAS being used to make pesticide applications, NAAA believes that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must consider the efficacy and drift potential of UAS with the same rigor currently used for aerial, ground and airblast applications which employ Spray Drift Task Force AgDRIFT model data.

14 CFR Part 107 – Small UAS

Effective since 2016, Part 107 allows small (less than 55 lb.) UAS to be operated commercially with a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate and Small UAS Rating. There are currently over 325,000 Certified Remote Pilots. Some notable operating limitations to Part 107 include a maximum groundspeed of 100 MPH and a maximum altitude of 400 feet AGL (lowered from 500 feet thanks, in part, to NAAA comments). Only visual line of sight operations of a single UAS are permitted and all UA must yield right of way to manned aircraft. Some of these rules can be waived by FAA if an applicant demonstrates that such a waiver will not endanger the NAS and persons on the ground. Part 107 was amended in 2021 to allow operations over people and at night.

49 USC §44807 – Exemptions

To fly a UAS that exceeds the maximum weight in Part 107, or if the use requires relief from a non-waiverable rule, a petition for exemption may be filed under the authority of 49 U.S.C. §44807 – Special Authority for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems. This allows a risk-based case-by-case determination of whether certain UAS may operate safely in the NAS. You can search for granted exemptions here. These exemptions are a type of federal rulemaking, but most petitions are granted as a “summary grant” using a materially similar prior granted petition as justification. The FAA must publish a petition for public comment if granting the exemption would set a precedent. NAAA has commented on over 100 of these petitions, asking the FAA to require a series of safety measures (approved previously by the NAAA Government Relations Committee) as follows:

  • Crewed aircraft should always have the right-of-way over UAS.
  • Commercially utilized UAS should be certified by FAA as airworthy
  • Before UAS operate in areas commonly trafficked by crewed aircraft, such as above farms, they should be equipped with ADS-B In to be able to detect crewed aircraft with ADS-B Out.  Ultimately, NAAA believes that UAS should be mandatorily equipped with FAA-certified detect and avoid (DAA) technology that detects crewed aircraft (both cooperative and non-cooperative) and alerts UAS to their position so they can give way to them.
  • The above DAA technology should be a prerequisite for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations.
  • UAS should be equipped with visible strobe lighting, and ideally painted in readily distinguishable colors, such as aviation orange and white, to increase visibility.
  • UAS pilots should be held to a standard similar to crewed aviation pilots. This includes requiring a pilot certificate to demonstrate proper knowledge of the NAS, as well as a third-class medical certificate to demonstrate physical capability to operate a UAS.
  • Notices to air missions (NOTAMs) should be filed 48 – 72 hours prior to UAS flights.
14 CFR Part 89 – Remote Identification

Effective September 16, 2023, all UAS are required to broadcast timestamped identification, location, altitude and velocity information via Bluetooth/WiFi. On September 12, 2023, the FAA instituted a policy of discretionary enforcement until March 16, 2024 to allow operators to equip and become compliant. Remote Identification (RID) is hailed as the next incremental step toward further integration of UAS in the NAS. It has been further described as a digital license plate and will be helpful to law enforcement and regulators to ensure responsible and safe UAS use. There have been situations where UAS were not operated legally; however, no enforcement action was taken because it could not be determined with certainty who was operating the UAS or where it was operating. NAAA has pushed the FAA to require identification for UAS since before they were first approved for commercial use in 2014.

NAAA has actively engaged aviation stakeholders over its concerns with UAS integration into the NAS since before their first commercial use in 2014. In short, UAS are incredibly hard to see for aerial applicators, particularly in the task saturated low-altitude environment they work in. It is paramount, then, that UAS be properly equipped and required to detect and avoid crewed aircraft to prevent loss of life through mid-air collisions. In addition to the many comments to the FAA on proposed UAS airworthiness criteria and petitions for exemption, the Association communicates with, and facilitates communication between, its member operators and pilots, regulators and the public to promote the safety of pilots over all other interests in integrating UAS into the NAS.

Here are some communications on this topic from the last several years:

If you or a pilot of yours has a near-miss encounter with a UAV or, worse, is hit by one, undoubtedly one of the main things going through your mind after the initial shock subsides is what to do and who to call to report the encounter. NAAA has prepared a handy checklist of steps to take after a UAV encounter. Follow these steps.

1. Inform Local Law Enforcement

When informing local authorities about the unsafe operation of a UAS, it is important to contact the enforcement body with jurisdiction over the area where the offense occurred. Call them immediately after the incident. Remember, local law enforcement agencies are not aviation experts, so be sure to provide them with ample and accurate information on why the operation was unsafe or illegal.

2. Report it to the FAA National Safety Hotline

After safely landing, you should report the incident by calling the FAA Safety Hotline at 1-800-255-1111 or online at hotline.faa.gov. This contact is a single avenue for anyone from FAA employees to concerned citizens to file a report regarding violations of federal aviation regulations or the safety of the national airspace.

3. Call your Local Flight Standards Office (FSO)

Your local Flight Standards Office (FSO, formerly called FSDO) consists of aviation officials who should be more intimately familiar with your airspace. Make sure the person taking the report understands you believe a violation of the FARs has occurred. However, due to personnel shortages it might take some time for an investigation to be completed.

4. File a NASA Aviation Safety Report

The primary purpose of a NASA aviation safety report is to collect data related to the national airspace to reduce aviation accidents and incidents. Your confidential and non-punitive report will go directly into the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), ensuring your experience will be used as data to contribute to aviation safety. The incident information can be recorded on the General Report Form for electronic submission, or the form can be printed for completion and mailing by U.S. mail.

5. Tell Other Pilots

Whether it’s through social media, message boards, email or word of mouth, let other pilots in your area know when and where the UAS was flying. While pilots should always maintain alertness when it comes to avoiding other aircraft and obstacles, highlighting your UAS encounter can help other pilots maintain some extra situational awareness when flying in the area the incident occurred should the UAS operator return to fly in that same area again.

6. Notify Local News Media and Ag Trade Press

Share your encounter and safety concerns with the local media to inform the non-piloting public of these same concerns. Perhaps this will remind some UAS operators of the need for caution around manned aircraft operating at lower altitudes. Notifying ag media about your UAS encounter will help get the story out to the ag community.

7. Inform Your Customers, Ag Retailers and Crop Consultants

A UAV encounter is a teachable moment. Let farmers, ag retailers and crop consultants in the area know about the incident, including when and where it occurred and what the UAS operator should have done as the ag pilot approached the same airspace. If you intend to notify them in writing, include NAAA’s UAS Safety Stuffer with the notice.

8. Contact Your Insurance Agent if …

In the event physical damage is done to your aircraft, contact your insurance agent. The company will ensure repairs are made to the aircraft in accordance with your policy. There is a possibility the insurance company could pursue action against the parties that may be liable for the loss.

In addition to the UAV encounter checklist, NAAA is always available for additional assistance in the event of a UAV encounter with an ag aircraft. Contact NAAA at (202) 546-5722.

NAAA believes FAA’s integration of UAS into Part 137 Aerial Application Operations must prioritize the safety of crewed aviation above all else, and that EPA ensures UAS are held to the same or comparable application standards for efficacy and drift as crewed aerial applicators. Since their initial introduction into the US market in 2014, heavy interest has driven regulatory change, simplifying the process to obtain a Part 137 certificate for UAS operations.

It is NAAA’s position that, while significant strides have been made in terms of UAS airframe and avionics capabilities, there is currently a distinct lack of publicly accessible data on the application characteristics for commercially available UAS equipped for aerial applications. This data is critical, not only in demonstrating application performance/efficacy, but in developing UAS-specific models to assess the risk of drift. Pesticide products must have risk assessments performed in order to be registered, and the drift risk profile of aerial applications is used to determine whether that product may be applied aerially. The Spray Drift Task Force conducted scores of field trials with fixed wing and single rotor aircraft 30 years ago to build this risk profile. UAS travel at lower speeds and may have multi-rotor configurations, so their risk profile may be very different and may merit separate labeling considerations.

Here are some communications on this topic from the last several years:

This policy page updated 2023-12-18 is not intended for publication. NAAA requests that should any party desire to publish, distribute or quote any part that they first seek the permission of the Association.