Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft (UA) are a safety threat to low-altitude aviators especially ag aviators if operated carelessly. 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 to UA.  In addition, NAAA believes EPA must consider the efficacy and drift potential of drones like 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.

FAA may grant special permission to UAS to “determine if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the National Airspace System.” The Agency must consider size, weight, speed, and operational capability, among other areas when making this determination. The FAA has now approved thousands of these 44807 exemption petitions. In these petitions the FAA has relaxed some of its earlier requirements, such as now requiring only a sport pilot’s license, which requires no medical certificate and minimal flight time.  Agency determined that if a petition is similar to an already approved one, then they can issue a “summary grant” that reduces the wait time.  NAAA does comment on most of these petitions 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 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.
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 an exemption. Since part 107 came into effect, 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 September 2021, FAA statistics show that 867,344 drones are registered (344,995 commercial; 518,805 recreational) with 244,568 remote pilots certified.

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 100 mph, 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.

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 www.faa.gov/uas/registration. 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. 

Updates Since the 2021 October Board Meeting:  NAAA continues to work with MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory to gather data that will involve normalization of the ag aviator dataset to make it compatible with existing airspace characterization tools. This will ensure full visibility and awareness of the agricultural aviation segment of aviation operations. This research is expected to increase safety for agricultural operators and pilots when working in the vicinity of unmanned aircraft.  NAAA has a call out for operators to share their GPS logs to assist with this research. The FAA is under pressure to use gender neutral language which has come about in part because of the term “Unmanned” to describe the difference between conventional aircraft and drones.  Some aspects of the FAA’s terminology has begun to change such as the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team is now the Drone Safety Team. Terminology found in the regulations will be more difficult and slower in changing.  A virtual FAA Inclusive Language Summit was held on November 10, 2021 but offered no specifics on how the regulations might be addressed. 


Updated February 2022.

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