ALEXANDRIA, VA – April 4, 2023 – As the nation enters the upcoming growing season, the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) is asking all unmanned aircraft (UA) operators to be mindful of low-altitude manned agricultural aircraft operations. Agricultural aviators treat 127 million acres of cropland in the United States each year and perform a variety of services that help farmers increase productivity and protect their crops.
Drones are not allowed above 400 feet without a waiver from the FAA, and manned agricultural aircraft fly as low as 10 feet off the ground when making an application, meaning they share this low-altitude airspace with drones.
“With the growing number of drones over the last few years, it is critical for their operators to be aware of low-flying, manned agricultural aircraft,” said Andrew Moore, chief executive officer of NAAA. “It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for manned aircraft to see a drone while conducting crop-enhancing and other aerial applications 10 feet off the ground at speeds as fast as 140 mph. We encourage professional and hobbyist drone operators to keep this in mind to ensure a safe 2023 growing season.”
While aerial applications are already underway in many parts of the country, operations nationwide will peak during the summer months. In a survey NAAA conducted near the end of the 2022 agricultural aviation season, 22% of manned aerial application operators—more than 1 in 5—reported that either they or a pilot flying for them encountered a drone while operating an ag aircraft last year (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Percentage of ag aviation operations that encountered a drone while operating an ag aircraft in 2022.
NAAA previously profiled an agricultural aviator who had multiple near-misses with drones during the 2018 growing season.
NAAA has and will continue to work to educate unmanned aircraft users and the public about how to use drones safely, especially in agricultural areas. NAAA urges drone operators to do everything they can to avoid ag aircraft doing important low-altitude work. In addition, NAAA recommends that unmanned aircraft operators:
- Give the right of way to a manned aircraft. It’s the law.
- Equip drones with visible strobe lights, highly visible markings and tracking technology, like an ADS-B Out system.
- Get certified and well-trained in operating an unmanned aircraft.
- Contact local agricultural aviation operations before flying by consulting AgAviation.org/findapplicator.
- Land your unmanned aircraft immediately when a low-flying aircraft is nearby.
- Carry unmanned aircraft liability insurance.
Small UAs can be virtually invisible—and potentially lethal—to agricultural aviators, air ambulance helicopters, law enforcement and other low-flying manned aircraft operating in the same airspace. In a test conducted by the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association and other stakeholders, including manned and unmanned aircraft organizations, and the state of Colorado, no pilot operating a manned aircraft could continuously visually track a 28-inch-wide drone when flying at regular speeds. While they might be spotted for a second, UAs are not constantly visible to pilots, meaning it is up to the drone operator to avoid a collision.
When birds hit an ag aircraft, they can break through its windshield, causing deadly accidents. A study conducted by the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) showed UA collisions with aircraft cause more damage than a bird strike of comparable size would, due partially to unmanned aircraft’s dense motors and batteries, as opposed to a bird made mostly of water, feathers, hollow bones and sinew.
At this moment when we’re all depending on the continued safe, affordable and abundant supply of food, fiber and bioenergy, don’t forget that America’s manned agricultural aviators are working in the skies to help farmers produce their crops. Manned ag aircraft are also flying at low altitudes to combat fires and conduct public health applications to eradicate disease-carrying mosquitoes and other deadly pests. If you’re going to fly an unmanned aircraft this summer, please be responsible and do everything you can to avoid agricultural aircraft. Learn more at AgAviation.org/uavsafetycampaignand Knowbeforeyoufly.org.