What You Need to Know About Drone Safety

10:18AM May 19, 2014
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Make sure your drone-flying experience goes smoothly.

Randall Adkins, a precision farming specialist for Scott Equipment in Louisiana, has been researching several models of rotor drones over the past several months. On this clear spring day, he’s assembling his first fixed-wing model.

"I got a cheaper fixed-wing model so when I crash it, I don’t cry," he says. "One thing I know for sure – this thing’s going to be painted orange."

That’s because crashes are inevitable, he says, especially when you’re just starting out. Flying drones on the farm can be useful – not to mention tremendously fun – as long as you keep the vehicle in sight and in control at all times. Don’t put your investment one gust of wind away from careening into a power line, he says. Safety has to be top priority at all times.

Although it took a bit of programming, Adkins has added a handful of failsafe "if/then" parameters into every drone he has built.

For example, he can set up a virtual geofence for every field, so if the drone crosses the boundary of the geofence, then it will land. If the battery level reaches 10%, he can program the drone to return to the launch site. Adkins can also switch to safe mode on some of his models, dramatically slowing the rate of ascent and descent for smoother takeoffs and landings.

Potential Regulations

The FAA must provide safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace no later than September 2015. Until that time, it is difficult to advise on best practices that are technically illegal when used by business including farming operations, says Brian Rau, a North Dakota farmer and the current National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) chairman of government relations. In April 2014, NAAA submitted comments to the FAA to address some of the group’s own safety concerns.

"Mostly it revolves around making the UAV more visible," he says. "Strobes, paint and high-visibility streamers would help a lot."

It’s also important to address is the drone’s current inability to properly see and avoid other aircraft. "See and avoid" is a safety standard for manned aircraft flying at low altitudes. A workaround solution for drones – sense and avoid – would allow the machine to automatically steer clear of incoming aircraft. The technology is still in its infancy, though, and is not yet a commercially viable solution, Rau says.

Education Matters

Illinois farmer Matt Boucher has three children, and as with any piece of on-farm equipment or technology, he makes drone safety education a priority.

"I always tell them to respect the dangers of the equipment, or it will one day make you respect it," he says. "When flying an unmanned aerial system, everyone needs to maintain a proper distance and always stay away from moving props."

Pilots should always maintain a line of sight, Boucher adds.

"As you might imagine, flying the ship by feel at a distance can have negative consequences."
Rau agrees that training needs to be an integral part of UAV operation.

"It seems reasonable to me that UAV operators should have some type of FAA pilot license to show that they know the rules of the air and that they can control their aircraft, just as an operator of a motor vehicle has to have a driver’s license," he says.

By 2020, the FAA also hopes to implement a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), which uses GPS tracking technology rather than ground radar, in all aircraft. Rau is hopeful this will improve safety, though he doubts any single solution will be the industry’s silver bullet.

A Look at Liability

Farmers also need to understand several potential legal hazards related to flying drones, says Indiana lawyer Todd Janzen.

"Even if you are in a remote location, be mindful of other aircraft in that airspace," he says.
For instance, agricultural aircraft routinely fly lower than 400 feet. So do medical helicopters and many other types of other non-industry aircraft. And other aircraft aren’t the only hazards, Janzen says.

"If a drone were to pass over a highway and cause a truck to swerve and drive off the road, the drone pilot could face a negligence lawsuit," he says. "Similarly, a low-flying drone that spooks a neighbor’s cattle could cause injury to livestock, people or fences. Any of these injuries could be fodder for a negligence lawsuit."

For a complete look at Farm Journal Media’s extensive drone coverage, visit www.farmwithdrones.com.