Ag Pilots Worry About Safety

December 5, 2015 02:07 AM

There’s vast airspace, but sharing with UAVs can be dangerous

Rod Thomas knows the inherent dangers of agriculture aviation: unmarked towers, guy wires and bird strikes. Add unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the list. In 2014, one of Thomas’ pilots was dropping into a potato field in Idaho when a UAV popped up in his line of site. 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.

“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 dictate when two airplanes, helicopters or aerial vehicles share airspace, they also share equal halves of responsibility to see and avoid one another. 

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 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules to protect its pilots. There are 1,350 aerial application businesses in the U.S., and 90% of those business owners are ag pilots. 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 will be no standard pilot’s license requirement, only minimal qualifications equating to a driver’s license, says Andrew Moore, NAAA president. “One of our big concerns: You should have a pilot’s license and be familiar with federal aviation regulations if you’re flying a UAV,” he adds.

NAAA also believes UAVs need a tracking device that electronically traces the location of an aircraft within a range of several nautical miles. Essentially, it would alert ag pilots when a UAV enters their airspace.

Flying 10' above the canopy and at speeds up to 160 mph, there’s 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 study by USDA and the Department of Transportation found a staggering 142,000 wildlife strikes on airplanes from 1990 to 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 duck can wreak havoc on a plane. 

“We had a mallard crash through the cockpit window of one of our pilot’s planes,” Moore recalls. “It hit the pilot’s sternum and still had the force to carom out through the left-side window. The pilot managed to maintain consciousness and pulled up, gained altitude and survived.” A mallard weighs up to 3.5 lb.; a UAV can weigh 50 lb. 

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

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