Protecting Ag Pilots from the Threat of UAVs

When the FAA ushers in a new era in the near future by allowing UAVs to legally share the national airspace with manned aircraft, the effects will be profound and far-reaching, but in no sector more so than agriculture.

Precision agriculture stands at the top of nearly everyone’s list of the most advantageous uses of civilian UAVs. The fervor among farmers champing at the bit to purchase their own UAV to use for crop monitoring and other purposes has been well documented. What gets lost amid all the rosy projections for UAVs’ commercial uses is the safety concerns of pilots, and in particular the concerns of aerial applicators and other pilots operating in low-level airspace. 
 
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (also known as the FAA Reauthorization Act) requires the FAA to provide for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system no later than September 2015, and a final rule regarding small UAVs (those 55 lbs. or less) is slated for a November 2014 release. With those deadlines fast approaching, NAAA has taken a “no stone unturned” approach to pushing for the safe integration of UAVs into low-level airspace where manned ag aircraft operate. The following overview details NAAA’s efforts to ensure the safety of agricultural aviators remains paramount during the FAA’s deliberations. 
 
NAAA’s Position and Overall Actions Regarding UAVs: The ability of ag 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 several 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 has participated in interviews regarding UAS and its impacts on agricultural aviation. NAAA has petitioned 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 that the FAA require ADS-B position broadcast technology and strobe lighting for UAVs, making them easily visible to pilots of manned aircraft. NAAA has also been in contact with a number of congressional offices about its UAS concerns as well as the trade association for the UAS industry, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and the Aerospace Industries Association. Refor to NAAA’s Fact Sheet on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for more information.
 
Open Lines of Communication with the FAA: In late March, NAAA representatives, including former NAAA President Scott Schertz, met with the manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, Jim Williams, to discuss the serious safety concerns NAAA members have regarding the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System. NAAA representatives emphasized that it’s critical that UAVs be, at a minimum, equipped with strobe lights and ADS-B out technology to allow ag aviators to clearly see these low-level obstacles. Williams indicated he agreed that UAVs present a hazard to low-level aviators, but believed he could not make an argument for ADS-B equipage of all UAVs without data of near misses and accidents caused by them and model aircraft. That’s the standard the Office of Management and Budget would require in order to mandate ADS-B Out equipage of UAVs and ADS-B In equipage of ag aircraft, Williams said. 
 
Williams also said that in the case of small UAVs operated within line of sight, the FAA intends to place the burden of see-and-avoid on the UAV operators given the small size and maneuverability of the aircraft (in compliance with the general principles outlined in Part 91.113). In the case of larger UAVs and those operated beyond-line-of-sight, Williams said the FAA intends to require all the same airworthiness standards that exist for manned aircraft, including flashing exterior strobe lights. Williams also said that the FAA would not allow beyond-line-of-sight flight until a viable, successful sense-and-avoid system has been developed and approved by the agency. 
 
Friending the FAA in its Fight to Sanction UAV Scofflaws: On April 4 NAAA filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the case of Huerta v. Pirker, the recent matter in which an NTSB administrative law judge ruled that the FAA does not have the authority to regulate UAVs. NAAA submitted this brief because the case serves of substantial interest to NAAA’s members given the safety hazards UAVs pose within the low-level airspace.
 
The legal case concerns Raphael Pirker, a Swiss UAV operator who was fined $10,000 for flying his remote controlled aircraft in reckless manner while filming a promotional video for the University of Virginia’s medical school. The FAA says Pirker’s flights ran afoul of FAA rules prohibiting the commercial use of UAVs. NTSB administrative law judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that the agency does not have the authority to impose a blanket ban on UAVs nationwide and overturned Pirker’s fine. The FAA appeal stays the judge’s ruling until the full National Transportation Safety Board issues a ruling in the case.
 
NAAA’s brief supports the FAA’s federal mandate to regulate aviation safety, and states that the judge erred in his issuance of a summary judgment on the case. NAAA argues that even if the aircraft was a “model aircraft,” as the judge suggests, that does not exempt the aircraft from regulation. Moreover, NAAA argued, Pirker’s aircraft was clearly operating within navigable airspace (defined as 500 feet AGL and above over populated areas), presenting a safety hazard, thereby giving the FAA the authority to issue the fine. 
 
Outreach to Ag Colleagues: NAAA is also making its agricultural colleagues aware of the dilemma aerial applicators are up against if sufficient safeguards to protect ag pilots and other low-level aviators aren’t put in place once UAVs are allowed for use in agriculture. Last month former NAAA presidents Scott Schertz and Rod Thomas, along with NAAA’s Moore, delivered a presentation on unmanned aircraft and ag aviation at a CropLife America (CLA) conference. Industry stakeholders at the meeting included chemical companies, CLA board members, ag retailers and other ag associations, as well as representatives from various government agencies. The audience was briefed on NAAA’s safety concerns and recommendations for the safe integration of UAVs and informed that the FAA has stated the onus will be on UAV operators to avoid collisions with manned aircraft when they share the same airspace. That puts UAV operations at great risk presently, given the current regulatory uncertainty. The last thing a UAV operator (i.e., farmer) would seem to want is the liability that would follow him should there be an incident with a manned ag aircraft, the NAAA speakers cautioned. Beyond the potential for loss of life, most farmers’ insurance policy caps wouldn’t cover such an incident, the NAAA reps noted. 
 
Grassroots Efforts: Some NAAA members are making a conscious effort to point out these concerns to their customers and ag media outlets. Former NAAA president Brian Rau, who currently chairs NAAA’s Government Relations Committee, recently responded to a Farm Journal writer who wrote a “Drone-Buying Checklist” to point out that safety and liability issues were conspicuously missing from his checklist. As Rau wrote: “Almost all farm/grower liability policies exclude any aircraft or aircraft operation coverage. … In the case of a collision with another aircraft (or a ground based object or person) the operation of the UAV would probably be found to be illegal and the operator liable for any damages, injuries or deaths and no insurance coverage would be in place.” NAAA commends Rau bringing the perspective of aerial applicators on the issue of UAVs to the attention of Farm Journal. Such foresight should bear fruit down the road as agricultural publications continue to cover the emerging agricultural UAV market. 
 
Share Your Near-Miss Stories With NAAA: The FAA has informed NAAA that safety data indicating near misses with UAVs will be needed to support a UAV ADS-B and strobe mandate. As such, NAAA urges any ag pilot who experiences a near-miss encounter with a UAV to report such incidences to their local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) and to NAAA to assist in our efforts to promote the safe integration of UAVs. With your help we can show the FAA that more needs to be done to ensure safe integration. In addition, NAAA urges all members to report illegal UAV operations to their local FSDOs and to NAAA. Unless operating under a COA, commercial UAV flights are still prohibited by the FAA until more safety data can be collected. Call (202) 546-5722 or email information@agaviation.org to share your UAV close encounters with NAAA.
 
NAAA will continue to fight to ensure ag aviation’s voice is heard regarding the safety hazard these low-flying vehicles present, and will continue to work with the FAA along the way to ensure a safe coexistence between ag aviation and UAVs both large and small.