Think Before You Launch executes Drone visibility testing at the CoAAA Operation S.A.F.E. Fly-In

by Jessica Freeman, Sterling Wiggins

After a morning delay due to fog, things revved up quickly as ten ag aircraft from the area flew in to have their spray equipment tested, and learn about various safety topics.

The first day began with a demonstration by Agribotix of their Enduro UAS, their latest unmanned aircraft system. The unit is designed to carry a lightweight GoPro camera that can be used for aerial imaging. The UAS is currently operated under a Section 333 exemption under the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act that allows the FAA to grant use of commercial UAS’s by exempting them from certain Federal Aviation Regulations. Constantin Diehl of UAS Colorado and Tom McKinnon of Agribotix fielded questions from the crowd about the way they use their aircraft and how they work with local aerial applicators.

When asked by Dr. Dennis Gardisser of WRK Arkansas LLC whether they’ve considered ADS-B for their aircraft, McKinnon said it’s something they’re looking into it, but they’re waiting for the weight of the systems to decrease. NAAA is urging the FAA to require visible strobe lighting and tracking technology such as ADS-B Out systems be equipped on all UAVs.

Following the demonstration, Jennifer Rodi of the NTSB gave a presentation on the safety risks associated with UAVs, as well as what UAV accidents the agency has the power to investigate. According to Rodi, the NTSB only has the power to investigate UAS accidents when the UAS is 300 pounds and over, or involved in a very specific circumstances.  The NTSB will investigate any accident with a UAS is if involves a manned aircraft.

Following Rodi’s presentation, the weather cleared up enough to allow the Operation S.A.F.E. aerial application equipment testing clinic to occur. The clinic is designed to allow aerial applicators to enhance the precision of their application equipment and to showcase the technological sophistication of aerial application services to its farmer/customers. Leading the calibration clinic was aerial application analyst, Gardisser, assisted by fellow veteran analyst John Garr of Garrco Products Inc.

Then On Friday October 2, 2015 the safety coalition Think Before You Launch conducted the first known visibility tests between a drone in flight over an agricultural field and an agricultural aircraft in flight on the perimeter of the field. The results were very surprising, but let’s start at the beginning of the story.

In March of 2015 a group of aviation and UAS professionals from Colorado met up to discuss the safety concerns that low altitude pilots were voicing about drones in the low altitude airspace. The mission of Think Before You Launch (TBYL) is to raise awareness by educating manned and unmanned aircraft operators about hazards associated with the low-altitude environment in order to prevent accidents and improve safety while encouraging coordination and legitimate use of UAS.

The TBYL group hypothesized that small UAS/ drone (55 pounds or less) would be difficult for a pilot of a manned aircraft to see and avoid while in flight, yet t small UAS/drone could cause extreme damage to the manned aircraft in the event of a mid-air collision. The hypothesis was based on past experience with dangerous unmarked MET Towers and mid-air collisions with small birds like a mallard duck. The visibility test flights were created as a way to prove or disprove the idea that small drones are hard to see in time for a pilot to safely avoid a mid-air collision.

The test concept was designed by the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association, UAS Colorado, Agribotix, Juniper Unmanned, and Avian LLC. Without the time, expertise, and donation of equipment from the stakeholders this test may have never become a reality.

Five volunteer pilot/ aircraft combos were briefed with a mission plan to fly a series of five agricultural fields to determine how visible drones and/ or ground markings were to the pilot on a field survey flight. The test goal was to establish if small drones were visible. Test pilots were given an advantage with a pre-flight briefing stating that the UAV would have to be flying at a higher or lower altitude with the flight remaining inside the boundaries of two of the first three fields on the test route. The pilot was instructed to perform a survey pass at a set altitude outside of the field boundaries (mapped with GPS).  The low altitude survey pass allowed the pilot to scour the area looking for obstacles without the distractions of performing normal spray pass tasks.  This means the cockpit had a much lower amount of task saturation than a normal work pass for a working aerial application pilot.

Two test fields contained the Agribotix, Enduro model UAV, which is approximately 28 inches (rotor center-to-center), weighs 6 pounds, has a cruising speed of 30 miles per hour, and is used to conduct survey flights over agricultural fields.

Test Field Field Set-ups
Field A. None
Field B. Agribotix Enduro N148AE.  Chris Shupp (PIC) and Tom McKinnon
Field C. Agribotix Enduro N163AE  Griffin (PIC) and Jimmy Underhill
Fields D and E contained ground markings (no drones), consisting of an orange tarp with the word UAV in large black letters and a blue tarp laid flat on the ground, to make the work site more visible.

Both of the Enduro UAS were flown at an altitude lower than the approaching aircraft which forced the pilot to search for the drone against the brown and green landscape of the field.

Five aircraft, four fixed wing, and one rotorcraft, flew the full visibility test route on Friday October 2, 2015. The aircraft were designated as Duster 1-5 for communication purposes during the test.

Duster 1: Cessna Husky piloted by Mark McCuistion from Jet Stream Ag Aviation.  Pilot was unable to acquire either of the UAV’s.  Pilot was able to clearly read the UAV on the orange tarp for a ground marking, however he almost disregarded the tarp as an irrigation dam for a cement ditch.  “I saw people, vehicles, wires, and birds during the flight, but never saw the UAV. That was a bad feeling knowing the UAV was out there and I could not find it” stated Mark McCuistion is his post flight interview.

Duster 2:  AT 402B piloted by Matt Reck of AgOne Application.  Pilot was unable to visually acquire either of the UAV’s during the flight. The tarp was very visible but again the pilot almost disregarded it.

Duster 3: AT402B piloted by Matt Schulze of AgOne Application.  Pilot was able to visually acquire one UAV with a flash of sunlight, but was unable to visually track the UAV for more than a few seconds.  Pilot did not visually locate the second UAV during the flight. Photo credit James Amos

Duster 4: Cessna Husky piloted by Todd Leach of Jet Stream Ag Aviation.  Pilot did not visually acquire either of the UAV’s. Pilot reported that the orange tarp was visible as a ground marking but he had to be directly overhead to make out the text.

Duster 5: Bell R44 helicopter piloted by Rick Boardman (NAAA President 2015) with Gaylon Stamps (NAAA Board of Directors) as the visual observer.  Both the pilot and the visual observer were unable to visually identify the UAV while flying at normal speeds. Once the helicopter was in a stationary hover the UAV was visually acquired over both the Bravo and Charlie fields. The surprise came when the pilot reported that he was unable to maintain visual contact with the UAV, despite the stationary attitude of the helicopter. “I thought the UAV on Field Charlie would be easier to track, since the field background was a light tan color” said Rick Boardman post flight, “but that UAV kept disappearing from sight, I would find it, lose it, find it, lose it.”

Preliminary Conclusions from the visibility test:

Even with the pre-flight briefing and low task saturation during the flight passes, all of the test pilots had an extremely difficult time visually acquiring the UAV or maintaining visual contact with the UAV once it was visually acquired.

While the orange ground marking tarp was very visible, the pilots almost disregarded it as an irrigation dam or something a farmer left next to the field accidentally. Test pilot feedback was to have a bright color other than orange or blue which are the most common colors on the farm.
The GPS data and video footage has not been analyzed yet, so all conclusions stated in this article should be treated as preliminary until final data analysis is available. Metro State University in Denver is assisting in interpretation of GPS data, as well as video footage, weather conditions, and post flight interviews of the participating pilots. This will tell us how close the aircraft actually flew to one another allowing closure speeds and potential collision avoidance (or nonavoidance) to be hypothesized based on the test flights.

After the test CoAAA Board President Sam Rogge said “The results of the test show that UAS are indeed difficult to see. “What I heard from a majority of the pilots was that we knew UAVs would be difficult to see, but it turns out they’re more difficult to see than we thought. It’s clear that it will take a cultural change on both our parts [ag aviators and UAS operators] if we’re going to work cooperatively in the airspace… operating line-of-sight isn’t enough to mitigate safety issues.”

The test results were just a first step in solving the problems associated with UAS use at low altitudes, and with this information ag aviators and responsible UAS advocates can now go to the FAA with some proof that UAS are indeed difficult to see, even when operating within line-of-sight. The preliminary results show that without better visibility and other more technologically advances safety solutions a drone and an aircraft should not work in close proximity in the airspace at the same time. Coordinating flights will require communication solutions to assist in airspace de-confliction. Participants in the annual Operation S.A.F.E. Fly-In of the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association (CAAA) collaborated with UAS Colorado to demonstrate how technology powered by AirMap can promote communication and coordination of flight operations in agricultural areas. The operation is a proof-of-concept that will be refined and rolled out across the country in the near future.

Think Before You Launch, CoAAA, NAAA, UAS Colorado, Avian LLC, and Agribotix are all committed to continue cooperatively seeking safety advancements for the protection of low altitude pilots. Stay tuned, there will be more information coming soon!

PHOTO: Agribotix Enduro model UAV- photo by Sterling Wiggins
PHOTO: Constantin Diehl of UAS Colorado answers UAS questions photo credit- Sterling Wiggins
PHOTO: Bill Bagley checks the aircraft speed on approach- photo credit Constantin Diehl
PHOTO: Cessna Husky during pattern test- photo credit Jessica Freeman
PHOTO: CoAAA and NAAA members meeting to prepare for the test flights- photo credit Jessica Freeman
Test Day: October 2, 2015
PHOTO: Agribotix Enduro- photo credit Sterling Wiggins
PHOTO: Photo credit Constantin Diehl
PHOTO: Photo credit James Amos


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