The FAA considers how best to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems (a.k.a. drones) into the National Airspace System. Drones are a double-edged sword for the aerial application industry. On one hand, drones have become a significant safety obstacle for agricultural pilots operating in the same low-altitude airspace. On the other hand, drones could become a complementary tool that aerial applicators adopt for certain smaller spray jobs or to perform aerial imaging for land and crop monitoring purposes. At present, drones’ ability to make safe and effective aerial applications has yet to be tested by the EPA. NAAA wants a safe and legal process for drones to enter the aerial application industry and has urged the EPA to begin field trials for drone spraying evaluation. Collecting UAV spray data is necessary so application instructions can be written specifically for drones on the labels of crop protection products.

For commercial civilian drone uses to truly proliferate, safe integration is essential. Agricultural pilots worry the widespread use of drones without safe integration will result in low-altitude aviation accidents. Ag aviators commonly fly between 10 and 500 feet above ground level while monitoring many gauges in the cockpit and avoiding trees, telephone poles and power lines. Unlike larger fixed obstacles, small unmanned aircraft can be virtually invisible—and potentially lethal—to agricultural pilots, emergency medical helicopters, law enforcement and other low-flying aircraft operating in the same airspace.

The ability to see and avoid obstructions and other aircraft is the backbone of safety for aerial applicators and all air traffic operating under visual flight rules. All aircraft, including UAVs, have a responsibility to abide by this aviation safety principle.

NAAA has been one of the leading safety advocates for low-flying manned aircraft, advocating to the FAA and Congress that drones should be equipped with sense and avoid technology, strobe lights and tracking technology like an ADS-B Out system so that drones’ flight position can be made known to manned pilots, as well as for stronger training, licensing and certification requirements for drone pilots and unmanned aircraft systems.