NAAA: Beware of low-flying ag aircraft during growing season

By Patrick C. Miller | April 09, 2019

A national organization representing agricultural pilots is reminding drone operators to be aware of low-flying crop dusters sharing the same airspace with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) during the growing season.

The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, said both professional and hobbyist drone operators should know that agricultural aviators fly as low as 10 feet off the ground when making an application to crops in the field. The organization represents more than 1,900 members in 46 states, supporting the interests of small business owners and pilots licensed as professional commercial aerial applicators.

“With the proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems over the last few years, it is critical for UAS operators to be aware of agricultural aircraft,” said Andrew Moore, NAAA executive director. “It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for manned aircraft to see UAS while conducting labor-intensive aerial applications 10 feet off the ground at speeds as fast as 140 mph. We encourage both professional and hobbyist UAS operators to keep this in mind to ensure a safe 2019 growing season.”

According to the NAAA, while aerial applications are already underway in many parts of the country, operations nationwide will peak during the summer months. The organization referenced an agricultural aviator in Wisconsin who last year had multiple near-misses with UAS. In addition, the NAAA noted that a drone collided with an agricultural aircraft in Israel last August, the first such recorded incident of its kind.

The NAAA recommends that UAS operators: carry liability insurance; equip drones with visible strobe lights and tracking technology—such as ADS-B—enabling other similarly equipped aircraft know their positions; get certified and trained in drone operations; contact local agricultural aviation operations before flying; give the right-of-way to manned aircraft as required by law; and immediately land drones when low-altitude manned aircraft are nearby.

A test conducted by the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association and other stakeholders—including manned and unmanned aircraft organizations—showed that aircraft pilots couldn’t visually track a 28-inch-wide drone continuously when flying at regular speeds. Thus, the NAAA said it becomes the drone operator’s responsibility to avoid a collision.

The NAAA also noted a study conducted by the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) which demonstrated that a UAS strike on an agricultural aircraft would cause more damage than a bird of similar size because the density of the drone’s batteries and motors is greater than a bird’s density.