UAS Hijinks Highlights Need To Get Regulations Right For Agriculture

I’ve written a number of pieces about unmanned aerial systems (UAS) over the past several months as interest in the technology in agriculture started reaching a fever pitch. I’ve urged you to avoid using the “d” word to avoid associating ag uses of UAS with military equipment and terrorism. I’ve urged responsible use for anyone who’s taking them out for a test ride to see what they can do, lest we encourage stricter regulation. I also got after Amazon for its UAS demonstration for package delivery, which only created more negative publicity about the potential dangers of UAS mishaps and privacy invasion.

But I could not have imagined what the FAA reported recently as a near miss with a commercial airliner in Florida earlier this year. Incredible.

This unfolded as the AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2014 conference is getting underway in Orlando this week. Our man Matthew Grassi is covering the conference in the Sunshine state, and after bumping around the receptions and breaks for a couple hours on opening day, he said that people are simply amazed that someone would do something so crazy — to operate at that altitude that close to restricted airspace.

There was some spotty speculation of conspiracy of course, as there always is when something this bizarre happens, i.e., the FAA staged a near miss to force a “pumping of the brakes” on regulations. Anything is possible, but …

We’re looking forward to more reports from the conference through this week and beyond. But I do want to add one thing to the conversation in this space — namely, the necessary coexistence of UAS with aerial applicators, whenever regulations are put into place. Andrew Moore of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) is appropriately concerned about any proliferation of UAS, in particular in the Midwest. I think about all the planes out doing fungicide applications on corn in July, a prime scouting time, and wonder how it will all work together.

Andrew shared with me a couple of key components that NAAA feels are necessary to ensure safe skies in the Heartland:

1. Require UAVs be equipped with strobe lights.

2. Require the use of ADS-B, or Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast. Moore says that this technology that allows pilots in the cockpit and air traffic controllers on the ground to “see” aircraft traffic with much more precision than has been possible before.

“ADS-B relies on the satellite-based GPS system to determine an aircraft’s precise location. That information is combined with information onboard the aircraft such as aircraft type, speed, and altitude and converted to a digital transmission,” says Moore. “The information is broadcast (ADS-B Out) to other aircraft and to air traffic control.

“Aircraft equipped with a ADS-B In system can view the data on a digital display inside the cockpit. ADS-B Out is mandated for all aircraft operating in controlled airspace by 2022, ADS-B In is an optional component for aircraft but will be in place for all ATC by 2019.”

Unlike conventional radar, ADS-B works at low altitudes and on the ground so it can be used to monitor low-flying and airport traffic, notes Moore. It’s also effective in remote areas or in mountainous terrain where there is no radar coverage or where radar coverage is limited.

FAA does have a difficult job ahead, but the pressure to move quickly to resolve commercial regulations is growing by the day. Regulations must not be delayed, but they must also get it right for UAVs to be safely and successfully implemented in agriculture.

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