I suppose the “big” news of the month is NAAA moving the 2021 Ag Aviation Expo from Palm Springs, California to Savannah, Georgia. As I understand it, California is still experiencing Covid restrictions that would not be beneficial to the success of the NAAA convention. The Covid environment is much less restrictive in Georgia, as those who attended last years’ convention in Savannah realized. I’m all for it!
Savannah is a great little port city close by to some of the best golf courses, restaurants, history and sightseeing to be found anywhere in the U.S. The people there are always accommodating. The hotels are great and you can’t beat the location. Watching out the seventh floor of your hotel room, a container ship motor up the Savannah River at eye level is quite a sight to see. And, of course, the aircraft can land on an adjacent road so the convention has hands on aircraft display in an enormous convention center. It can’t be beat!
Plus, by the time the Expo rolls around, major construction at the Perry-Houston County Airport (KPXE, where AgAir Update offices are located) should be completed. This means we can once again have the AgAir Update Open House and Hangar Party to kick off the convention. Watch for more details on that!
On another note, in this edition of AgAir Update you will read about NTSB’s annual report on ag-aviation accidents for 2020. There are a couple of noteworthy items in it. First, the compilation of deaths in the U.S. from flying ag for the last 10 years was an astonishing 81 pilots. I don’t have the data handy for the 10 years before that, but it would be something of interest for comparative reasons. I do recall in the early 1990s, 15 deaths seemed to be a common denominator. If that is true, the industry has made progress with an approximate 50% average overall reduction per annum in the last 10 years. However, years like 2020, 2016 and 2014 do nothing to improve those statistics with 13 and 12 deaths respectfully.
If you are carefully reviewing 2020’s numbers, you may notice there were 12 fatal accidents, but 13 fatalities. The key words are fatal accidents and fatalities. There were 12 accidents with a fatality and in one case, a mid-air, where there were two fatalities. This accounts for what would seem to be a discrepancy. The mid-air was two SEAT aircraft in the Pacific Northwest working a fire in tandem that resulted in one accident, but two deaths.
A reader sent me a link where a fixed wing drone was powered by an electric motor spraying a crop. That was somewhat interesting. I can think of a bucket of reasons the project will meet many challenges. The link claimed 135 acres an hour with a payload of just over 600 pounds. That makes me wonder if batteries are considered part of the payload, as fuel is for a manned, FAA-certified ag-aircraft.
I watched a video of the drone treating a field. With all its autonomy, it still overflew the boundary instead of shutting off and doing a clean up pass. It also appeared to have significant drift potential when observing the spray pattern. This brings to light a problem I’ve observed with all drones that dream of being an ag-aircraft. The manufacturers and operators seem to not have any indication of what spraying with an aircraft is all about. The last thing this industry needs is a drone operator to go to the field and ruin everything we have worked for addressing drift.
I’m willing to speculate that all emergencies that ag-pilots have experienced, every attempt was made to provide for the safety of those on the ground. I don’t see this happening with a drone that is beyond line of sight. Don’t tell me they can’t get lost, or have a battery, or motor failure. I simply don’t believe it.
My basic contention about drones is they are aircraft that share the same airspace as ag-aircraft. To me, that means drones should follow the same regulatory rules that ag-aircraft and ag-pilots have to follow. This means the drone should be built under Part 23 FAA rules with FAA-certified parts, certifications and inspections. The pilot should be a commercial rated pilot with the same skill sets as an ag-pilot. And, of course, the loading facilities should be subject to EPA scrutiny, just like ag-aviation. If we are going to play this game, let’s play it fair.
In parting, don’t misunderstand me about drones. Yes, I have always stated they can be a very valuable asset for the ag-operator. Many challenges drone manufacturers are faced with can easily be overcome by an ag-operator. And, drones do have a role in working areas the ag-pilot would rather not be in. But in my belief, the drone will have to be fixed wing or a single rotor wing aircraft like the helicopter to be able to make an even spray pattern.
Until next month, Keep Turning…