Ag Pilot Concerns Grow Over UAV Safety

December 1, 2015 10:00 AM

Rod Thomas knows the inherent dangers of agriculture aviation: unmarked towers, guy wires and bird strikes. Add UAVs to the list. In 2014, one of Thomas’ pilots was dropping into a potato field in southern Idaho, when a UAV popped up in his line of site. No warning and no time for consideration. The pilot pulled away from a potentially fatal crash with a touch-and-go reaction. Death averted and crop duster spared--until the next UAV incident occurs?

“People think UAVs are safe to operate away from populated areas, but that’s entirely wrong. Why? That’s where ag pilots work,” says Thomas, owner of Thomas Helicopters Inc., in Gooding, Idaho. General aviation visual flight rules (VFR) dictate when two airplanes, helicopters, or aerial vehicles share airspace, they also share equal halves of responsibility to see and avoid one another. “When we’re in the sky with a UAV that can’t ‘see and avoid,’ then the user is not sharing the responsibility. Also, the manned aircraft’s pilot likely can’t see the UAV.”

The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) isn’t waiting for a fatal collision. The organization represents ag pilots in 46 states and is calling for legislation and more stringent FAA rules to protect its pilots.

A Call for Reasoned Regulation

There are 1,350 aerial application businesses in the U.S., and 90% of those business owners are ag pilots. In addition, there are an additional 1,430 non-owner ag pilots. Currently, commercial UAV users must apply to the FAA for a Section 333 permit. Typically, the FAA exempts UAV operators from aircraft certification, but operators must have a sports pilot license at a minimum. When the new sUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems) rule is issued in 2016, there is no standard pilot’s license requirement, only minimal qualifications which equate to a driver’s license, according to Andrew Moore, NAAA president. “One of our big concerns: You should have a pilot’s license and be familiar with FAR (federal aviation regulations) if you’re flying a UAV.”

The FAA also has proposed (on the small unmanned aircraft systems rule) a written certification test for UAV operators, but the contents are an open question. However, the test likely won’t equate to the level of a pilot’s license which requires knowledge of federal aviation regulations, operational ability and accumulation of flight hours. “We think you need a form of pilot’s license with some sort of type rating,” Moore says. “There should be an exact type rating for the specifics of UAV operation. Pilots need to show FAA officials they can operate a UAV and not only pass a written test.”

The NAAA also believes UAVs need a tracking device similar to an ADS-B system (automatic dependent surveillance broadcast system), which electronically tracks the location of any aircraft within a range of several nautical miles. Essentially, it would alert ag pilots when a UAV enters their airspace. In 2015, the Think Before You Launch alliance (a consortium of concerned UAV and aviation interests), in conjunction with the Colorado Agriculture Aviation Association, conducted tests on the ability of manned aircraft pilots to spot UAVs in flight. Their results showed ag pilots, even when looking for UAVs in a test area, have tremendous difficulty with visualization. “UAVs need a strobe powerful enough for manned aircraft pilots to see,” Moore notes. “Pilots have to be able to see and track UAVs.”

Thomas backs up the necessity for identification. “We’re asking for ADS-B Out or some kind of electronic means for us to see UAVs, and them to see us as ag pilots. In aviation, the most maneuverable aircraft gives right of way to the least maneuverable aircraft. A helicopter gives way to an airplane; it’s a hierarchy that makes sense.”

No Room for Error

Ag pilots drop close to the crop canopy when spraying to augment accuracy and prevent drift. Flying 10’ above the canopy and at speeds up to 160 mph, there is no room for error. Pilots traveling at 250’ per second get no do-overs. “We can’t see a tiny UAV. We’re asking for an electronic signature, strobe lights and high visibility markings,” Thomas says.

What might a UAV-airplane collision entail? A joint study released by USDA and DOT showed a staggering 142,000 wildlife strikes on airplanes between 1990 and 2013, resulting in 25 fatalities. When a pilot is fortunate to walk away from a bird strike, aircraft damage still costs thousands of dollars. When flying at speeds near 60 mph, even a seemingly inconsequential mallard duck can wreak havoc on an airplane. “We had a mallard crash right through the cockpit window of one of our pilots,” Moore recalls. “The mallard hit the pilot’s sternum, and still had the force to careen out through the left-side window. The pilot just managed to maintain consciousness and pulled up, gained altitude and survived.”

A mallard weighs 1.5 to 3.5 lbs. A UAV can weigh 50 lbs. “The safety issue between UAVs and agriculture aviation is absolutely huge. UAV operators think rural, low-population areas are safe for operation. That’s only true at first glance. It’s the precise airspace ag pilots use to treat crops,” Thomas says.

Moore wants to avoid safety issues for ag pilots in the future by seeking clarification on small unmanned aircraft systems rules before the pressing questions become permanent problems. The FAA has yet to finalize small unmanned aircraft systems rules, but in October, DOT announced a national registry for UAV purchasers. Previously, commercial users had to register UAVs with the FAA, but now hobbyists will be added to the list.

In addition to safety, Moore is concerned about liability issues related to UAVs. In 2011, a fatal collision between an ag pilot and an unmarked meteorological evaluation tower resulted in a major lawsuit. The deceased pilot’s wife sued the tower manufacturer, the landowner and the farmer. She was awarded $6.7 million. “There are serious liability issues with UAVs regarding fault and responsibility. Farmers need to be aware of these beforehand,” Moore warns.

NAAA questions don’t stem from economic concern. A number of NAAA members are preparing for UAV operation and hoping to benefit from a burgeoning market. UAVs aren’t in chemical competition with agriculture aircraft. The Yamaha RMAX, the best known UAV in agriculture, travels 28 mph with a 4-gallon tank capacity, and operates on farms in Japan on 3.7-acre average sized farms. “We’re not trying to prevent anything; this is purely a safety issue. You can’t treat U.S. acreage with UAVs. The average crop duster carries 500 gallons of delivery and per gallon costs with UAVs have absolutely no comparison,” Moore says.

Approximately 18% of farmland crop protection products are applied aerially. Coupled with forestry protection, pastureland and rangeland, aviation plays a crucial overall agriculture role. “When the final rules come down, the airspace will be filled with UAVs. This is one of the biggest industry issues at present and a huge concern for ag pilots and farmers,” Moore emphasizes.

“We’re up there just trying to make a living,” Thomas adds, “and we don’t want the safety of our pilots jeopardized by people playing with Christmas toys. It’s not a question of whether we’ll hit a UAV. It’s a question of when and it’ll do tremendous damage.”

What are your thoughts on regulating ag drones? Are you concerned about the possibility of close calls between UAVs and ag pilots? Let us know in the comments. 

Back to news


Spell Check

Mark Williams
Media, PA
12/1/2015 12:40 PM

  In the short term I agree that methods and systems should be employed to reduce any risk of ag pilots colliding with UAVs. However, on the flip side, (and in the long term) it also seems a high risk to have a one ton manned aircraft flying 10 feet off the deck at speeds over 160mph that can be brought down by a turkey vulture. Spraying crops is not worth the life of a single pilot no matter how lucrative it is.. I imagine that over time there will be some division of work between UAVs and manned ag aircraft for mutual benefit.. Coordination and regulation will be key however.

gerard lowrance
osage city, KS
12/1/2015 06:21 PM

  Mark being from Pa , I do not think he has the concept of air ag in the west states. Just my Opinion

Will Crump
Bolivar, TN
12/1/2015 06:45 PM

  There's no doubt that it is of the utmost importance for laws that require UAVs to be equipped with both powerful strobe lights that can be easily spotted by ag-pilots as well as an electronic proximity notification. There should be no debate on such legislation. Being an ag-pilot is already dangerous enough without adding another hazard to the list. Our ag-pilots are a vital resource and a precious life.


Corn College TV Education Series


Get nearly 8 hours of educational video with Farm Journal's top agronomists. Produced in the field and neatly organized by topic, from spring prep to post-harvest. Order now!


Market Data provided by
Brought to you by Beyer