Monday, May 20, 2024

Can Ag Aviators And Drones Find Harmony?

Photo courtesy Texas A&M AgriLife

One hundred years after airplanes were first used in applying insecticides to crops, a Mississippi State University flight lab is on a mission. It seeks to understand how today’s agricultural aviators can safely share the skies with unmanned aircraft systems. They often are referred to as UAS or drones.

Agricultural aviators treat more than 125 million acres of U.S. cropland each year, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association. Flying as low as 10 feet off the ground and at speeds up to 140 mph, ag aviators share this low-altitude space with unmanned aircraft systems with greater frequency than other manned aircraft.

“With UAS increasingly populating the skies, it’s in everyone’s interest to better understand how these two types of aircraft can safely share airspace,” says Tom Brooks, director of MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory. “We’re synthesizing available ag aviation data to better understand typical flight patterns and tendencies of our ag fliers. We plan to integrate this data with existing predictive models that will account for this vital aspect of aviation in developing safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system.”

Unmanned aircraft systems already aid emergency officials with disaster relief operations and support ag efforts and environmental assessments. Full integration into the national airspace system would enable them to operate with manned aircraft safely and regularly during emergency and non-emergency operations, while using many of the same air traffic management systems and procedures. By law, UAS must give the right-of-way to manned aircraft.

Low-Altitude Data Collection

Agricultural aviation appears, in some ways, to be an understudied aspect of aviation, according to Raspet researchers. For example, topographical obstacles, the curvature of the earth and the positioning of radars at airport terminals limit radar-provided information on low-flying agricultural aircraft. A widely used national database provides radar information for flights as low as 1,000 feet, but many agricultural aviators spend much of their time at heights 500 feet and lower.

For its analysis, Raspet has drawn from some 35,000 individual flight data logs of ag aviators via the NAAA and the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association. Data from 20 states is included, and Raspet researchers have worked to analyze regional trends.
“Most of this low-altitude data is below what the major radar networks are able to cover,” says Kyle Ryker, a Raspet research engineer who co-leads the effort with Madison Dixon, a UAS program manager. “We can fill in some of these gaps.”

The data includes ag aircrafts’ climb and descent rates, spray and cruise speeds and turning radii. Having a documented understanding of ag aviation operations allows for better training of UAS operators who fly in rural areas and are more likely to encounter ag aviators, Dixon says.

“Aerial applications are labor intensive,” says Andrew D. Moore, NAAA CEO. “Ag pilots are looking for ground-affixed obstacles and trying to ensure precise, targeted applications. Studies have shown it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for manned aircraft pilots to see UAS. The National Agricultural Aviation Association appreciates the MSU flight lab’s efforts to ensure the safety of manned agricultural aircraft as UAS traffic increases.”

Win-Win For Both Groups

“Our work involves normalization of the ag aviator dataset to make it compatible with existing airspace characterization tools,” Ryker says. “This will ensure full visibility and awareness of this unique segment of aviation operations.”

Technological advancements in agriculture and aviation since the Aug. 3, 1921, flight to dispatch sphinx moth caterpillars from a Catalpa tree crop in Troy, Ohio, are nearly unimaginable.

“Mississippi State is well positioned to help each of these sectors understand the needs and concerns of the other and to provide regulators with the necessary data to ensure both groups excel,” Brooks says.

Mississippi State University provided this article.

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