A $6.7 million settlement was recently reached in the lawsuit arising out of tragic death of Steve Allen, a pilot who specialized in low altitude agricultural operations such as crop dusting. Mr. Allen had a spotless safety record with over 26,000 hours in agricultural flights.
In 2011, Mr. Allen was flying at low altitude spreading winter wheat seeds when his aircraft struck a tower erected to survey wind levels as part of a survey for wind energy farm locations. Because the tower was just under 200 feet tall, it did not have to be marked and lit for greater visibility. Witnesses testified that based on the way the aircraft flew, Mr. Allen did not see the pole before he struck it.
This accident highlights a number of issues that affect UAS use. First, it shows that the “rule-of-thumb” that all flights below 400 feet are automatically safe is not always true. The FAA permits helicopters and aircraft like Mr. Allen’s to be in the low altitude airspace under certain circumstances. This is why the FAA requires UAS operators to be aware of and follow NOTAMs that may contain information about how the airspace it being used and any safety restrictions.
Second, it shows why the FAA is currently limiting UASs to line-of-sight operations. Without well-developed sense and avoid technology, the best way to prevent a low altitude collision is to have someone on the ground who can keep an eye, and ear, out for aircraft in the area and terminate the flight if there is a problem.
The incident also shows the hidden costs underlying current agricultural aerial operations. It is, however, only a matter of time before UASs will allow farmers to conduct low level spraying and seeding operations without having to risk human life. In fact, unmanned aerial vehicles have been used for agricultural work in Japan for many years, and it is estimated that nearly half of the country’s rice crops are sprayed every year by UASs.
While Hollywood’s drone proposals are grabbing all the glory, at the end of the day, agriculture is the industry that has the greatest potential to be transformed by UASs.
(Originally posted September 15, 2014)