Home-EditorialsFrom the Cockpit - More on Drones

From the Cockpit – More on Drones

I have been monitoring the continued push by drone-affiliated companies to enter the ag aviation marketplace. Having been in ag aviation for over 50 years, I feel there are some of them that are trying to break into the industry the right way and some that are living in an alternate universe.

Most AgAir Update readers realize the challenges presented to drone operators. My main issue is the developing lack of an equal playing field, which means regulations and application techniques. Those two points summarize the significant challenges I see for drone operators. There are other challenges besides those, such as battery charge life and qualified (licensed, both FAA and Pesticide Applicator) drone pilots, which will work themselves out as technology progresses and training is completed. These are challenging to overcome if they can be.

I am not against drones being used in the correct context. As a matter of fact, the drone has a unique place in aerial application. The problem I see is that some drone operators are unaware of the correct way to make an aerial application. For instance, abiding by current chemical labeling, calibration of nozzles, sharing of 137 certificates, etc. News articles I read imply or directly state applications are being made at rates below legal label rates. It seems arbitrary and unrealistic for the current state of ag aviation. Yes, I know exemptions have been made. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. Undoubtedly, drone applications must be held to the same standards as manned aircraft. As does the equipment.

Yes, drones have a critical role in agricultural aviation. We know they can treat inaccessible areas for typical Part 137 agricultural aircraft. Anyone should understand that without exceptions to the rules and regulations followed by Part 137 operators, the widespread use of drones is a non-starter. So, why are drones given a pass, no pun intended, to the rules and regulations that have guided agricultural aviation for decades?

I will be one of the first to acknowledge that chemical label application rates need re-evaluation. It is a proven fact that a significant number of chemical applications can be made safely and effectively at lower rates; much lower rates.

One day, regulators and chemical companies will adequately address this issue: low-volume (LV) and ultra-low-volume (ULV) applications. The chemical companies will follow once the regulators “open the door” to LV and ULV applications. Ag operators are simply waiting until these entities get their act together.

You say, “What about the continued development of large drones, possibly to a capacity size in both power and payload to a Part 137 ag aircraft?” Think about the cost and return on investment. Where will that be? Once a drone that is competitive with a typical ag aircraft is developed, the cost-benefit goes out the window. Whatever savings made by being pilotless will be offset by having a qualified, licensed drone pilot and the sophisticated equipment needed to guide a several-thousand-pound drone. Will the FAA require licensed mechanics to work on them at that time? Annual inspections? Who will make these inspections? Today’s IA and A&P will not know about the sophisticated guidance systems, and I am not referring to only the GPS units but also the hardware. The deeper one digs into the progression of drones in ag aviation, the clearer it becomes that anything application-wise, other than touch-up work, becomes impractical.

Why are there ample examples of drone operators wanting to, or even entering ag aviation for widespread spraying? Are they that uniformed? Most drone operators are very good at developing their aircraft, to a point. There is much more to ag aviation than following a GPS A-B line. I predict drone operators will tire of changing batteries multiple times, landing repeatedly, and fixing components not intended for this kind of abuse and corrosive environment, to name a few issues drone operators will face, all for a tiny sum of money for the effort and investment that was made to ag spray with a drone. The more drone operators push for widespread aerial applications, the sooner they will realize the improbability of becoming an effective and profitable operation.

The drone component of the aerial application industry is trying to organize, as evidenced by the recent symposium in Gulf Shores, AL. The NAAA was in attendance, and Andrew Moore gave a very factual presentation. It would be a mistake for drones to be ignored or shunned to the point that they have their own independent association. The aerial application industry has a fantastic association, and who better to welcome drone operators, with proper training and operating standards than the NAAA and our industry operators?






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