TERRETON, Idaho—Leif Isaacson sees potential for unmanned aircraft, commonly called drones, to help aerial applicators measure windspeed and weather conditions above fields—scouting work his business now conducts with a helicopter.
But as the National Agricultural Aviation Association’s new president, he’s more concerned that broader use of the technology—both in agriculture and commercially—could pose a safety hazard for his members.
Isaacson is scheduled to meet soon with the Federal Aviation Administration to discuss the creation of regulations to minimize the risk of agricultural pilots colliding with drones, among other topics of importance to his industry.
Isaacson said drones could be made safer by tracking their coordinates on a central database, fitting them with strobe lights or equipping them with transponders that would send an alert to aerial applicators’ cockpits.
“It’s almost impossible for a pilot, or guys going out on emergency services, to spot a drone out there,” Isaacson said.
Isaacson, who was sworn in for a year-long term as NAAA president during his association’s January convention in Reno., Nev., became an agricultural pilot in 1974 and bought Desert Air Ag in eastern Idaho in 1986.
“He’s established himself as quite good in the profession, but he’s also held just about every position in the Idaho Aviation Association and our own national association,” said NAAA Executive Director Andrew Moore.
Another safety priority for Isaacson is the passage of national standards requiring all towers above 50 feet tall to be specially painted and marked with bright balls on their guy wires to make them more visible to pilots who fly at low altitudes. He’d also like those towers to be included on aeronautical charts. Current federal law only requires marking of towers above 200 feet tall.
In the mean time, his organization urges FAA to address tower safety by publishing circulars detailing existing but little-known recommendations the agency has for marking meteorological towers.
Other priorities for Isaacson include lobbying federal regulators to take wind conditions into account when setting labels for farm chemical applications and backing legislation to reform National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.
NAAA and other agricultural groups failed in their efforts to include language in the new farm bill eliminating NPDES permits, imposed due to a 2009 Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling for spraying that could reach waterways. Isaacson views the permits as unnecessary paperwork.
In addition to working with NAAA’s committees and meeting with federal lawmakers and FAA officials, Isaacson will travel throughout the winter to different states to update members about the national organization’s efforts.
“I think I’ve been home eight days in the last 10-12 weeks,” Isaacson said.
Isaacson has worked for several years providing safety training for agricultural pilots through the Professional Aerial Application Support System. The PASS program, started in 1998, has helped to reduce agricultural aviation accidents by 22 percent and drift instances by 26 percent since its passage, according to Moore.
Moore said NAAA, which represents 1,900 members, has also prioritized recruiting new pilots to the industry, given that the average pilot is in his mid-50s.