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Aerial encounters abound during curious time for drones

Agriculture’s infatuation with unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technology is at an all-time high with no sign of that passion wavering at any point in the near future. Just as ag is actively exploring the new technology, so is the general American public. Now though, some negative incidents for the revolutionary equipment are making their way to the forefront of the drone discussion.

A new report recently released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at (https://www.faa.gov/news/updates/?newsId=83544) showed the amount of possible encounters with unmanned aircraft by pilots, air traffic controllers, and citizens have risen sharply through Aug. 20 of this year. Though numbers are up, a closer look at the figures show the encounters are heavily focused on five states in particular.

Slightly more than half of the total 952 reports received by the FAA since the beginning of 2014 were from five states. California led the pack with 196 reports (21%), Florida noted 110 reports (11%), New York had an even 100 reports (10%), Texas tallied 48 reports (5%), and New Jersey rounded out the top five with 37 reports (4%).

Eight incidents were reported in Ohio.

Significant concern has been brewing over the failure for operators to follow basic rules set forth by the FAA — the paramount fear being collisions with human-operated aircraft. There were 138 pilots who reported seeing drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet during the month of June, and another 137 in July. Some such incidents have even gained national attention.

Aerial firefighters taking on blazes in the western states are, from time to time, being temporarily called off of their airborne duties due to drones flying too close for comfort. There’s also the story of an Ohio crop duster and an incident involving a drone flying just feet over his wing while well above the ground, requiring him to postpone that application to that field until a later time. Even more recently, the U.S. Open found there was more flying through the air than just tennis balls as an errant drone held up match play after it crashed into fortunately empty seats at the event. The New York Police Department said the operator of that drone was arrested on charges of reckless endangerment, reckless operation of a drone, and operating a drone in a New York City public park outside of prescribed area.

Those incidents are just a sample of the exponential increase in encounters with UAS in a not-so-favorable manner over recent months. In the wake of so many close calls, the FAA has taken the step of issuing a strongly worded statement to those ignorant and irresponsible operators.

“The FAA wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal,” the agency said in a mid-August announcement. “Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.”

Why are these FAA reports important to agriculture? It’s an uneasy time with regard to aviation guidelines and regulators are attempting to make crucial decisions promising to heavily influence the future of drone use within the United States — something that will undoubtedly change the way drones are utilized above farm fields.

The FAA has noted that hobbyists racing drones and others operating UAS for commercial applications are likely not the main culprits who are approaching too close to airports and other breaches of government protocol. The statutory parameters of a model aircraft operation are outlined in Section 336 of Public Law 112-95 (the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012). A quick review of those points for operators is as follows:

 

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times.
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
  • Don’t fly within five miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying.
  • Don’t fly near people or stadiums.
  • Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds.

 

Helping to determine the uncertain future of unmanned aerial systems will be two newly announced “unmanned aircraft executives.” The FAA has selected Marke “Hoot” Gibson and Earl Lawrence for two executive-level positions “that will guide the agency’s approach to safe, timely and efficient integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into U.S. airspace.” Gibson will become the Senior Advisor on UAS Integration. Lawrence will assume the position of Director of the UAS Integration Office within the FAA’s Aviation Safety organization.

Many inside and out of the aviation world are eagerly awaiting the FAA’s final rules for commercial drone use. FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said, “The rule will be in place within a year. Hopefully before June 17, 2016.” Bumping up previously held expectations for finality in late 2016 or early 2017.

In the meantime, UAS operators have to follow specific rules set forth by the FAA and must file for an exemption if using such equipment for commercial purposes. The future seems bright for drone technology, but storms are on the horizon before the destination will be reached.

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