NAAA UAS Safety Concerns and Recommendations

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. 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” that permits those approved under Sec. 333 to fly up to 400 feet. Blanket COA users must also 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 technology, in which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts it, enabling it to be tracked.
  • 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 in order 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 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.
333 exemptions are now referred to as 44807 exemptions as a result of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act. Once a 44807 exemption is applied for and approved, a Certificate of Authorization (COA) is issued. A 44807 exemption and the following COA is required for UA heavier than 55 pounds and some UA that cannot meet the part 107 rule or exemptions.  
In 2016, the FAA issued their Part 107 small UAS rule:  Part 107 covers unmanned aircraft (UA) up to 55 pounds. A summary of these rules can be found here. The rules were amended in January of 2021 to allow operations over people and at night.  More information about the amendment may be found here.  

In a part 107 amendment adopted in January of 2021, UAS Operations over People will be allowed. 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 Part 89 Remote identification (RID.) In the same amendment, 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 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.
 NAAA has also introduced a bill stuffer, like the stuffer 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-altitude 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. This will increase UAS operators’ accountability.

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 alarming; 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.

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.

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 in nine months. The operational compliance date for previously manufactured and newly manufactured unmanned aircraft is 21 months.

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. In April of 2021, Drone DJ and Capital Press published stories about agri-chemical corporation giants, including Bayer, FMC and Wilbur-Ellis feeding $10.5 million into the drone startup company Guardian Agriculture.   Guardian Agriculture made the unsubstantiated claim that its drones will save farmers money, reduce overall chemical use by about one-third.

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

Updated February 2022.

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.