NAAA Actions Regarding UAS

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft (UA) remain a persistent emerging safety threat to low-level aviators of all stripes, and especially ag aviators. While NAAA is not “anti-UAV”, the Association does believe the FAA needs to take a measured, incremental approach to safely integrate UAVs into the NAS. This means that the Agency needs to fully assess the risk of UAVs to manned aircraft as they incrementally open the airspace.  In addition, NAAA believes EPA must consider the efficacy and drift potential of drones similar to how the agency takes into account the drift potential of aerial, ground and airblast applications from Spray Drift Task Force AgDRIFT model data.

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 the utmost importance for manned aerial applicators since manned ag aviators will be working at similar altitudes as UAVs used for crop-sensing, aerial imaging, and other purposes.

Starting in June 2014, the FAA permitted the first commercial use of UAVs in the Agency’s history by approving the petitions of a consortium of filmmakers lead by the Motion Picture Association of America. The filmmakers petition was filed with the FAA under Section 333 “Certain Rules for Special Unmanned Aircraft Systems” contained in the 2012 FAA reauthorization statute. The section requires the FAA to “determine if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the National Airspace System before completion of [the final rulemaking].” The Agency must consider size, weight, speed, and operational capability, among other areas when making this determination. Stipulations of the FAA’s approval of the filmmakers’ petition are that the operator must have a private pilot certificate, fly the UAV within line of sight and perform a preflight inspection on the aircraft. FAA also prohibited the aircraft from flying at night until the petitioners explain how they would mitigate nighttime visibility concerns. UAVs are also required to give way to manned aircraft in all instances.Spawning from this one approval, the FAA has now approved thousands of Section 333 petitions. In these subsequent petitions the FAA has relaxed some of the requirements, such as requiring only a sport pilot’s license, which requires no medical certificate and minimal flight time.  This changed when part 107 went into effect, as will be discussed later.  The Agency determined that if a Sec. 333 petition is similar to an already approved one, then they can issue a “summary grant” that reduces the wait time from 60 days, which included a public comment period, to a little over 30 days with no comment period. The FAA also issued a “blanket Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) where UAV users must comply with a number of restrictions such as remaining five miles from airports and not flying over non-participating persons. Prior to the creation of the summary grant, NAAA commented on all Sec. 333 petitions that the Association believed affected ag aviators, over 70 in total. NAAA’s comments focused on asking the FAA to require a series of safety measures that the NAAA Government Relations Committee has previously approved. These include the following recommendations:

  • Before UAS operate in areas commonly trafficked by manned aircraft, such as above farms, they should be equipped with ADS-B Out technology or an equivalent aircraft identification/tracking technology, in which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts it, enabling it to be tracked. Ultimately, NAAA believes that UAVs should be equipped with sense and avoid technology and that it should be mandated.

  • UAS should be equipped with visible strobe lighting.

  • UAS pilots should be held to a standard similar to manned pilots. This includes requiring a private pilot certificate to demonstrate proper knowledge of the National Airspace System (NAS), as well as a third-class medical certificate to demonstrate physical capability to operate a UAS.

  • Like manned aircraft, UAS should be certified as being airworthy by the FAA prior to having permission to fly in the NAS to ensure safety.

  • UAS should be painted in readily distinguishable colors, such as aviation orange and white, to increase visibility.

  • Notices to airmen (NOTAMs) should be filed 48 – 72 hours prior to UAS flights (required under granted Sec. 333 exemptions).

  • UAS should always be required to give way to manned aircraft.

  • The training and licensing of UAS operators who intend to spray chemicals should be equally as stringent as that for aerial application pilots in terms of obtaining commercial pesticide licenses; ensuring compliance with state regulations, 14 CFR Part 137 regulations, and EPA regulations. Commercial UAS operators should also be required to carry liability insurance and ensure their UAS is properly maintained.

It is also 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, sense and avoid, and marking, as previously discussed, ensures the aircraft is noticeable and visible to manned aircraft, law enforcement, the public, and other UAS.

In June of 2016, FAA finalized its small UAS (sUAS) rule, part 107, which went into effect in August of 2016. The rule applies only to commercial sUAS under 55 pounds and allows UAS operators to fly without a Sec. 333 exemption. Since part 107 came into effect, Sec. 333 exemptions are no longer used for commercial UAS operators. Instead, sUAS may be operated commercially by someone with a remote pilot airman certificate, which requires testing at an FAA center, or a manned pilot license along with online testing (it should be noted, however, that the testing is not as intensive as it is for manned aircraft). As of January 2020, 157,000 people have obtained remote pilot certificates.

In part thanks to NAAA comments on the notice of the proposed rule, the ceiling for UAS flights was lowered from 500 to 400 feet. Other operational limitations for sUAS include that sUAS operations be conducted within visual line-of-sight during daylight or civil twilight, sUAS may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation, an sUAS may not travel faster than 100mph, a UAV must be inspected by the remote pilot prior to flight, and sUAS must give way to all other aircraft. Most of these restrictions can be waived by FAA if an applicant demonstrates that such a waiver will not endanger the NAS and persons on the ground. As of January 7, 2020 the FAA has granted 3,551 waivers. You can view these waivers here.

NAAA has actively engaged aviation stakeholders over its concerns with UAS integration. NAAA staff have met with the Aviation Subcommittees in both the House and Senate to urge them to utilize the FAA reauthorization as a chance to require NAAA’s aforementioned safety recommendations. Thankfully, Congress heeded some of NAAA’s advice and included several beneficial UAS provisions in the 2016 FAA extension bill. These provisions include:

  • A requirement that all sUAS manufacturers make available at the time of purchase a safety statement informing the buyer about laws and regulations applicable to sUAS and recommendations for safe use of the sUAS. The safety statement is also supposed to include FAA-approved language regarding FAA regulations and warn buyers that there may be penalties for violating these regulations.

  • A ban on operating UAS in a manner that knowingly or recklessly interferes with a wildfire suppression effort. Anyone in violation of this ban may be fined up to $20,000.

  • A requirement that FAA allow applicants to petition to prohibit or restrict operation of UAS near a fixed site facility. This could potentially include agricultural airports, meaning you could apply for your airport to be a no-drone zone.

  • A directive to FAA to convene industry stakeholders to facilitate development of consensus standards for remotely identifying operators and owners of UAS and gives the FAA the ability to require remote identification of UAS. This will greatly increase accountability among UAS operators.

  • A $6 million grant for a pilot program for airspace hazard mitigation at airports through UAS detection systems.

  • A UAS-manned aircraft crash test program to determine what effect a UAS would have on aircraft in a collision.

NAAA has also introduced a bill stuffer, like the stuffer NAAA created related to MET towers, that members can share with farmers and others that may be operating UAVs to sense crops and collect aerial images for prescription maps. The stuffer urges UAV operators to equip their UAVs with ADS-B Out and strobes, and emphasizes the requirement that UAVs must give way to maned aircraft and the potential liability they face if a UAV operation should collide and damage a manned aircraft. The stuffer also urges UAV operators to carry proper liability insurance, and to coordinate with local aircraft operators about UAV operations. NAAA also produced a similar video on the importance of being mindful of low-level manned aircraft operations for UAV users to be aware of and has circulated it widely resulting in coverage of aerial applicators’ concerns with unrestricted UAV operations in a number of widely circulated traditional media sources from the Associated Press and the New York Times to agricultural trade publications such as RFD-TV and Farm Journal. 

NAAA and other aviation stakeholders have raised concerns about unrestricted UAS use for some time. These concerns resulted in FAA to require drone registration of all operators of small UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms). Under this rule, any owner of a small UAS must register. Owners may use either a paper-based process or a new, streamlined, web-based system at Registrants must provide their name, home address, and email address, along with a $5 registration fee. Upon completion of the registration process, the web application generates a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that includes a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft. Hopefully, this will result in fewer reckless UAS operators and increase accountability. After briefly being halted by a judge in 2017 for conflicting with the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which prohibited the FAA from regulating model aircraft, the registration system was reinstated through the 2017 National Defense Reauthorization Act.  As of January 2020, over 1.4 million UAVs have been registered with the FAA. This is compared to the 320,000 manned aircraft registered with the agency.

NAAA has also been appointed to the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee’s subcommittees, which provides the FAA with advice on key UAS integration issues by identifying challenges and prioritizing improvements. Similarly, NAAA has been appointed to the White House’s Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team which is tasked with gathering and analyzing data to enhance safety and operations of drones in the NAS.

In October 2015, the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association teamed up with aviation and UAS organizations in the state to conduct a visibility test to determine if pilots can see UAVs mid-flight. The results were frightening; not a single pilot could visually track a six-pound, 28-inch-wide Enduro quadcopter when flying at regular speeds, and only one of six pilots were able to even spot a UAV while flying. UAVs are essentially invisible to pilots, a dangerous reality that greatly increases the chance of fatal crashes. The result of this test reinforced NAAA’s view that UAVs must be marked and equipped with an ADS-B Out-like system, or that UAVs and manned aircraft should not be in close proximity to one another while flying to ensure pilot safety.

In November 2017, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum directing the Department of Transportation to establish a pilot program within the next year to allow state and local governments to loosen restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations. The administration says the pilot program will accelerate the development of UAV technologies. However, the relaxing of UAV restrictions is creating cause for concern among low-level and other manned aviators. Under this pilot program, states and cities can apply to test new unmanned traffic management systems under 200 feet, allowing flight beyond visual line of sight, nighttime operations and flights over people. These operations are currently allowed only with a waiver from the FAA. The program will also allow communities to test different types of ID and tracking technologies—capabilities NAAA believes are necessary for all UAVs.

NAAA submitted formal comments to the FAA and explained none of the operations under this pilot program should put manned aircraft at risk. The FAA insists it is not ceding any authority over the national airspace because it must still approve the proposals submitted and all proposals must comply with existing federal aviation regulations.

In May of 2018 the DOT selected 10 sites to participate in the three-year UAS Integration Pilot Program. While the University of Mississippi with its emphasis on agriculture was not accepted, the Kansas Department of Transportation was selected with a similar program.

According to the description for the Kansas Department of Transportation, its program will focus on leveraging a “statewide unmanned traffic management system to facilitate precision agriculture operations.” The program’s highlights and benefits include using “a range of technologies, such as detect and avoid, ADS-B, satellite communications and geo-fencing. The program will use existing in-state resources such as fiber optic networks and UAS Traffic Management (UTM).”

If conducted properly, the Kansas program has the potential to demonstrate the importance of these technologies for the safety of low flying aviators.

In the fall of 2017, NAAA completed its work on the FAA’s UAS Identification and Tracking ARC, originally chartered to help public safety officials identify UAS during operations when enforcement must be taken. However, NAAA was one of several aviation organizations that dissented from the reports final recommendations because it exempted far too many types of UAS and did not recommend a weight threshold for ID and tracking requirements, specifically that UAVs weighing more than half a pound should be required to be tracked and identified for safety and security purposes.

NAAA has long sought to give the FAA the authority to regulate recreational UAS. As such, the 2018 FAA Reauthorization gives the FAA the authority to regulate all UAS and also requires recreational UAS users to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test. Additionally, the provision gives the FAA the authority to impose tracking and ID requirements on hobbyist UAS users so they can be properly identified.

In November of 2018 NAAA submitted comments on a draft version of the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Standardization Collaborative (UASSC) Standardization Roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Version 1.0). In December of 2018 many of NAAA’s suggestions were incorporated into the final document, bringing clarity and specificity to many of the gaps described.

NAAA made known to the ANSI UASSC that UAV application efficacy, and drift potential needs to be studied and modeled and labeled accordingly before a crop protection product manufacturer and EPA approve that a pesticide be applied by drone. Presently the drift characteristics and efficacy of applications made by UAVs are largely unknown and require extensive research and development to ensure environmental, crop and human safety. Currently, USDA’s AgDRIFT model is the industry standard for calculating drift risk for ag aircraft, ground sprayers and air blasters. This model has been developed over the years through extensive research and smaller unmanned aircraft do not fit properly into the AgDRIFT model. At a recent meeting with the EPA, NAAA recommended the development of a committee to accurately study the drift characteristics of applications made by UAVs. This research could then be incorporated into the Ag DRIFT model.  The ANSI UASSC report mirrors these application issues as they pertain to UAVs. NAAA continues to work with ANSI and they prepare to publish a version 2.0 roadmap later in 2020.

In June 2019, NAAA sent a letter to the FAA explaining why a policy proposal the agency is considering would be detrimental to manned aircraft and all low-flying aviators. While considering exemption requests for UAVs to conduct powerline inspections, the FAA is considering the concept of “infrastructure masking” as a valid mitigation technique to keep UAVs and manned aircraft separated. Infrastructure masking is the concept that because manned aircraft are supposed to avoid obstacles, UAVs can operate close to these obstacles without interfering with manned aircraft activities. The UAVs near these obstacles could then potentially have the right-of-way over manned aircraft. NAAA explained that due to the unique nature of aerial applicators work, aerial applicators fly above and below powerlines on a routine basis, and the long-standing regulation that UAVs must yield to manned aircraft must never be waived. The FAA responded to the NAAA’s letter by saying the agency uses a formal Safety Management System to assess risk to an “acceptable level” and assure the effectiveness of safety risk mitigations. The letter states that as the FAA integrates UAS into the national airspace, the agency is evaluating mitigations to reduce risk that include infrastructure masking, detect-and-avoid systems, visual observers, aircraft lighting, and other potential operations. The letter went on to state “The FAA is determining if credit could be given to infrastructure masking in conjunction with other mitigations, as part of its layered mitigation approach to reducing risk.”

In August 2019, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) announced it received approval to conduct UAV operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to inspect powerlines as part of the FAA’s UAV Integration Pilot Program (IPP). This is the first BVLOS operation approved by the FAA in the nation. The KDOT says its operations are safe for BVLOS flight because they are utilizing a new detect-and-avoid system that can automatically avoid manned aircraft. However, like all UAVs, this system has not been certified by the FAA. The North Dakota Department of Transportation, also part of the IPP, was granted BVLOS operations a week later.

NAAA has also had meetings with the EPA, crop protection product manufacturers, agricultural trade press and conducted presentations at the Pesticide Policy Dialogue Committee and Association of American Pesticide Control Officials to explain that continued study of UAV pesticide application efficacy and drift potential is needed. EPA conducts a sophisticated spray drift risk assessment when registering a product for aerial use. The AgDRIFT model used for this predicts spray drift for fixed wing and single rotor applications. Other inputs into the model include weather conditions and boom length. These models do not necessarily apply to UAVs with two, four, six or more rotors. Reabe told the PPDC that without a similar model for unmanned aircraft, a proper spray drift risk assessment cannot be performed. Therefore, aerial pesticide labels should not apply to these unmanned aircraft until a proper drift assessment can be performed.

Additionally, NAAA has been informed by the FAA it is in the premilitary stages of starting a rulemaking process that would enable agricultural certification for UAS operations without the need for exemptions. This would be done as part of the larger Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certification (MOSAIC) rulemaking project that would enable a wide range of UAV operations beyond what is allowed under part 107 without type certification. A NPRM is tentatively planned for early 2022, with a final rule issued in late 2023. 

In January of 2020 NAAA wrote a letter to the EPA urging them to begin testing UAVs to evaluate application accuracy and drift potential. These results need to be incorporated into the AgDRIFT model and into the risk assessment process for pesticide registration and re-registration to ensure aerial applications by UAVs can match the same safety standards as manned agricultural aircraft.

On June 30, 2020, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) published the second version of the Standardization Roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The roadmap was the work of ANSI’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Standardization Collaborative (UASSC), a group formed to coordinate the development of standards needed to facilitate the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace. UASSC included over 400 individuals from 250 public and private organizations including the FAA, other federal agencies, industry, and academia. The UASSC was not tasked with developing standards itself, but rather help identify standards that need to be developed by standard developing organizations such as the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, who also develops standards related to aerial applications. As part of UASSC, NAAA ensured that standards and research related to the safety risks UAS present to agricultural aircraft and other low-level aircraft were identified and included in the roadmap. These included standards dealing with detect and avoid (DAA) systems, geo-fencing, UAS conducting power line inspections, UAS remote identification, and airworthiness. NAAA also played a major role in the section of the roadmap dealing with using UAS to perform aerial applications. NAAA made sure the roadmap pointed out that tank capacity and field size play an important role in determining the feasibility of UAS for applications in the U.S. NAAA also pointed out that aerial applicators cannot see UAS and that the EPA needs to conduct research to accurately model the drift potential of UAS.

Updates since 2020 October Board Meeting:  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published a final rule on the remote identification (RID) of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in January of 2021.  The rule requires drones to be equipped with technology that will determine a drone’s location and the time it is operating in specific locations. NAAA has been active in advocating drones that are half a pound or greater be tracked and identified long before the FAA issued its proposed rule in the spring of 2020.  With only a few exceptions, RID is required for all drones over 0.55 pounds operating outside of an enclosed structure.  Under this RID rule, drones will be required to broadcast a signal that includes, among other information, the UAS’s ID serial number, latitude/longitude, altitude, velocity, emergency status and time mark. The identification of the owner/operator of the serial numbered UAS will only be available to law enforcement and regulatory agencies. The FAA is not promoting this as a type of unmanned traffic management (UTM) or means of traffic deconfliction currently but leaves the possibility open for traffic management in the future with this technology.  The specific frequency band of the broadcast signal is not specified other than it must be compatible with personal wireless devices such as tablets or phones using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The signal strength is required to be optimized to allow reception by as many devices as possible.  There is disagreement between industry experts on whether Wi Fi or Bluetooth signals would have the range and update capability to be used for traffic deconfliction.  Included in this rule is a prohibition against most UAS using ADS-B Out. This is to prevent the ADS-B system from becoming overwhelmed. NAAA continues to encourage UAS to incorporate ADS-B In, which would enhance safety by informing the UAS operator when an ADS-B out equipped manned aircraft is in the area and obligate them to give the right-of-way to the manned aircraft as required by Part 107. Newly manufactured unmanned aircraft must meet the requirements of this rule beginning 18 months after publication of the rule in the Federal Register. The operational compliance date for previously manufactured and newly manufactured unmanned aircraft is 30 months after publication.

Also allowed are UAS operations over people which will be allowed by the amendment to 14 CFR 107. The operations have to fit into one of four categories. Each category has different requirements and risk mitigations. The mitigations range from weight limitations to rotating parts being covered to the requirement for a Part 21 airworthiness certificate. Most categories require RID. UAS operations at night are also allowed, which was previously prohibited by Part 107. To qualify for night operations, The UAS must have strobe type anti-collision lighting that is visible for at least 3 miles. The remote pilot operating the UAS is required to have an updated knowledge test to ensure familiarity with the risks and appropriate mitigations for nighttime operations.
NAAA participated in Drone Safety Awareness Week November 16 – 22 2020 virtually by offering an event entitled Drones and Agriculture SafetyThe event featured a video and links to NAAA’s UAV safety page.  The event will remain active until next November. 

NAAA also played a key role in a December 2020 North Carolina State University’s Center of Excellence for Regulatory Science in Agriculture (CERSA) organized a conference titled “Advances in Regulatory Risk Assessment of Pesticide Drift from Unmanned Application Systems (UAS) and Manned Aerial Application.” NAAA participated actively and was also on the development committee.  Also participating were over 100 pesticide companies, academics, UAS and ag industry representatives and state and international regulatory agencies, including the EPA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Many entities in attendance agreed that UAS applications do not fit into any existing drift model. In fact, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), Canada’s counterpart to the EPA, stated that for a pesticide to be specifically registered to be applied by a UAS, drift modeling showing its safety would have to be developed. As such, UAS applications in Canada are not allowed presently. NAAA has been urging the EPA to develop UAS spray modeling indicating how the product moves in the atmosphere and to label its use according to the results, just like it does for manned applications.  Another conclusion from the CERSA conference, including from regulatory agencies, was that drift modeling—specifically AgDRIFT—could be modified to take into account more realistic setups commonplace in today’s manned aerial application industry. NAAA is also currently participating in the EPA’s Pesticide Policy Dialogue Committee Emerging Technologies Working Group identifying similar policies needed in regards to aerially applying drones.

NAAA also continues to comment to the FAA on proposals from the UAS industry on FAR exemption requests (part 61, part 91 and part 107) to allow Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and operating larger UA.  There have been fifty-six 107.31 Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) waivers issued since January of 2017.  There have also been requests for 333 amendments and in December of 2020, 9 airworthiness criteria approvals.  NAAA continues to focus on safety, most of the requests and proposals are lacking in any safety measures that would allow the operations to proceed safely.  The requests that mention BVLOS usually do not mention the enabling technology that would allow the operation.  When mentioned, the technology is usually ground based radar, ground based acoustics or  artificial optics mounted on the unmanned aircraft.  No evidence is offered that would show that these methods are adequate for safety at low altitude operations such as agricultural aviation. 

Updated February 2021.

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.