Sunday, May 04, 2014

Drones worry crop sprayers

BISMARCK, N.D. _ Worried about safety, North Dakota aerial crop sprayers want better communication with unmanned aircraft operators.

“We’re requesting if a grower intends to operate an unmanned aircraft over their fields to notify the aerial sprayers in the area with the location,” a statement from the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association said.

The state was recently awarded a Federal Aviation Administration Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site near Grand Forks, but as drones gain popularity, safety could become an issue for those flying aircraft outside the test site in agricultural areas.

“It’s not the test sites,” North Dakota Aeronautics Commission Secretary Cindy Schreiber-Beck said during a commission meeting April 23. Schreiber-Beck also is the executive director of the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association.

Pilots of unmanned aircraft at the test site have to follow strict rules, but between 120 and 180 drones have been sold to private customers in North Dakota and western Minnesota, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said. He said those numbers are based on conversations he has had with sellers of the unmanned aircraft.

“Of the civilian drones sold, 90 percent will more than likely be used in agriculture,” he said.

Test site drone operators are licensed pilots and have spotters to keep aircraft within line of sight at all times. Those who buy the drones privately may not be familiar with rules of the air.

Schreiber-Beck said she has heard advertisements to buy the aircraft on the radio. How many people are flying the aircraft is unclear, but they could be operating over fields as early as this spring.

Collision and liability are the biggest concerns. If a collision were to happen, a crop sprayer pilot could be seriously injured and civilians operating the unmanned aircraft might not be covered by insurance.

“I think that’s what scares them (aerial crop sprayers),” Goehring said. “They don’t want a problem ... They can’t see one of these little planes.”

Farm insurance policies normally exclude any aircraft operation liability, according to the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association.

“They could lose their farms,” said North Dakota Aeronautics Commission member Warren Pietsch at the April meeting.

The purpose of the test site in North Dakota is to help develop regulations for unmanned aircraft. Col. Robert Becklund, director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, said some rules already are in place but the general public may not be familiar with them.

“I do agree with Cindy (Schreiber-Beck),” Becklund said. “If someone buys one of these and flies it themself without knowledge of flight rules and right-of-way rules and they’re out of visual line of sight, they can’t see an ag sprayer. It has potential to be a problem.”

Under federal aviation regulations, UAS are only supposed to be flown by civilians for hobby reasons and the aircraft should weigh less than 55 pounds. The planes must remain below an altitude of 400 feet and within the pilot’s visual line of sight, Becklund said. There also are special rules for flying near an airport.

Becklund said civilians using drones for imagery are likely to fly lower; however, aerial crop sprayers may have to fly low and unmanned aircraft have the ability to fly too high.

Becklund also questioned where to draw the line in describing a hobbyist. He said some may consider a farmer taking photos of his or her crops a hobbyist.

“There’s a little grayness out there in the rules,” he said. “It needs to be developed.”

Until full regulations are developed, aerial sprayers are offering some solutions. The association requests unmanned aircraft be painted a color that is easily spotted and that they be equipped with a strobe light. Calling aerial sprayers in the area in advance to let them know where an unmanned aircraft will be flying would help. Licensing unmanned aircraft was another suggestion.