Day 3 of the FAA’s drone safety awareness week is underway, the week runs from November 4th through 10th, 2019. Drone safety is in our hands, you know this, you control your drone and ensure it is handled safely. From the FAA’s perspective, there is more to a safe flight than just making sure you don’t crash, they have many rules and regulations for drones, all designed around safety for other air traffic, as well as for people on the ground below.
Day three of the FAA’s Drone safety awareness week is again for Business — Infrastructure and agriculture.
Drones and infrastructure
Before we talk about the challenges and safety risks of flight around infrastructure, let’s explore a few of the tasks you might be considering. We can break this down into two main categories, vertical structures and long-range structures.
Vertical infrastructure is easy to manage. Things like buildings, radio towers, bridges, and wind turbines are stationary objects that are usually documented on airspace maps, at least many are covered on a VFR map. While the general drone flight rule states a maximum flight altitude of 400 feet above the ground, it also allows you to get up to 400 feet above a tall structure, as long as you are within 400 feet of the structure. That means that you can use a drone to inspect a 1000 ft radio tower all the way to the top.
You need a waiver from the FAA to fly BVLOS, and they can be very hard to get.
The first safety obstacle you’ll face is wind. The higher up you go, the faster the wind is usually travelling, your drone may only be rated to handle winds up to 25 or 30 mph. In addition to be blown away, or blown into the object you are trying to inspect, wind mills have moving parts, and radio towers sway in the wind a lot more than you might think. Collisions are possible.
The next obstacle will be radio interference. Your drone legally has to accept radio signal interference, and a radio tower literally generates radio waves that may cause you grief. Loss of control is very possible.
Another safety risk of vertical infrastructure is a loss of sight of the drone. You need a waiver from the FAA to fly BVLOS, and, technically, flying around the back side of a building breaks that line-of-sight rule. The same risks apply if you fly up over, or down underneath a bridge while inspecting. If you can’t see the drone, even if it is just 15 feet away from you, you are creating a hazardous situation.
Long range infrastructure is usually safer to fly at any given point. Inspecting a roadway, rail line, or power line are easier flights to manage, with fewer inherent risks from the item being inspected itself. However, these things tend to cover a lot of ground. You may be able to see your drone out to a couple thousand feet, but a railway may be hundreds of miles long. Once again, we encounter that phrase BVLOS. Of course, a roadway may also have people on it, requiring you to block off the road or qualify for a waiver to fly over top of people, nether are easy.
Drones and agriculture
There are two main uses for drones in agriculture. The most common is for inspection and mapping. Simply acquiring a birds-eye view of a field. We think this is fantastic! A farmer can keep tabs on crops, making more food for me, and a rancher can quickly inspect their fence line, to ensure that animals do not get out, especially onto roadways. Mapping, of course, assists in land management and other legal affairs, but that is something a land owner may only do once in their life, compared to the daily task of inspecting a fence for issues.
The second task for drones in agriculture is interacting with the things within the fence line. There are new businesses out there that do nothing but dust crops. This used to be the task for manned aircraft, sending a plane or helicopter with large jugs of spray out over a field. Flying a drone to do this task can be much more methodical, quieter and affordable. A drone with crop identification AI, or a camera with a human watching the live-stream, can detect healthy plants from unhealthy or infested plants, then provide targeted spray. Dumping gallons of chemicals from an airplane, hoping it hits the mark, sounds ludicrous in comparison. Not to downplay the effectiveness of crop dusting pilots, please get out and watch them fly some time, they’ve got some serious nerve and skills!
Luckily, the risks to humans on the ground are typically fairly low for most drone inspection tasks. Most radio towers and buildings are on private property, while most rail lines and power lines span remote areas of the globe. This also puts a lot of these inspection tasks in Class G airspace, which is usually the least populated by other air traffic. It is likely that we will begin to hear about more and more drones in use to inspect power lines, pipe lines and rail lines in the near future. The FAA understands the benefits of using small UAS for these tasks, they just need to finalize the new rules and laws going into the books.
Check in tomorrow for more FAA drone safety, next up is drone deliveries.
Catch up on all of the FAA’s safety week content
Day 1: Public Safety and Security
Day 5: Education and STEM
Day 6: Recreational Flyers
Day 7: Recreational Flyers
Some solid inspection and mapping drones: