By Mike Petrovsky
A company in Idaho’s panhandle thinks its agriculture-related drone business will eventually take off before the start of the growing season despite federal regulations temporarily putting on hold its flight plan into uncharted territory.
Hayden-based Empire Unmanned LLC was launched Jan. 31. The company is a collaborative effort between Advanced Aviation Solutions out of Star, located a little northwest of Boise, and Blair Farms in Kendrick, just southeast of Moscow. The company intends to use drones to help farmers in Idaho, Montana and the Pacific Northwest monitor their crops and ranchers do the same for their livestock from above.
Empire Unmanned is the first business in the U.S. authorized to legally fly drones as a service for agriculture, said company president Brad Ward.
Ward, 44, is a retired Air Force pilot who also flew MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones over his 20-year military career.
“We are hoping to charge (farmers and ranchers) $3 an acre, and with the learning curve, we will bring that cost down,” Ward said.
The company, in business not even two weeks, already has had seven potential customers express interest — most of them large growers.
“The smallest grower that has contacted us has 1,500 acres,” Ward said. “The largest is a rancher with 14,000 acres.”
Yet the former Air Force drone aviator said the amount of acreage really doesn’t matter.
“We’re looking to get the word out to as many farmers and ranchers as we can.” Ward said. “It’s not so much the size of the farm — 200, 500 acres. We don’t have a minimum charge.”
Empire Unmanned plans to use its drones to collect data on grain crops and potatoes in Idaho, cattle in Montana and orchards and vineyards for growers in Washington state and Oregon.
Yet before Empire Unmanned can launch its first agricultural drone, the company has to navigate an increasingly more complicated puzzle of Federal Aviation Administration regulations as they pertain to unmanned aircraft used commercially.
“We are waiting on one last piece – a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA. That’s the only piece,” Ward said, adding that Empire Unmanned expects to officially get its business off the ground on March 1, in time for planting season. “The biggest challenge is regulatory and the changing environment at the FAA (regarding drones). (The number of regulations) is growing and the rules are changing at a fast pace.”
As for drone regulations in Idaho, Ward said the extent of the state law governing drones is simply to not allow the drone to trespass on private property.
The potential benefits to the use of drones in agriculture is great particularly for farmers who practice a type of farming that is known by different names including target farming, zone management and precision agriculture. Ward explains:
“We can tell you what your wheat stand looks like, instead of you walking all 640 acres identifying where you’re having problems with the field. Drones give them (farmers) an idea of what their field is doing — where a particular area is under stress -— so a farmer can go to that spot and figure out what’s going on.”
Ward said a 30-minute drone fly over can provide farmers with crop field data “right down to the square inch,” which means, for example, growers can examine the blossoms on fruit trees without having to go into the orchard with a ladder.
He added that farmers who practice zone management can transfer the coordinates compiled by the drone to their GPS-guided tractors, making the process more efficient and thereby less costly.
One would think growers or ranchers could save even more money if they purchased a drone from Ward’s company outright and operated it themselves.
“We couldn’t in good faith sell an aircraft to farmers knowing that they couldn’t operate it legally,” Ward said.
He explained that last year the U.S. Secretary of Transportation issued the “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.”
“The crux of the matter is … a farmer using a UAS (unmanned aircraft system) to monitor crops that are part of a commercial farming operation do not fall under (federal) ‘Hobby and Recreation’ rules,” Ward said.
He added that model aircraft, which do not meet the federal statutory requirements of the hobby and recreation exemption, are nonetheless unmanned aircraft, and as such, are subject to all existing FAA regulations.
“Depending on the system, there are about 20 Federal Aviation Regulations that the typical small UAS do not comply (with),” Ward said. “A farmer that wants to fly an unmanned aircraft to monitor his crops needs an exemption to these regulations.”
Furthermore, Ward said, the FAA is only approving exemptions for the operators of the aircraft and is not taking applications from manufacturers on behalf of their customers, which means a farmer who buys a drone doesn’t inherit approval to fly it from the manufacturer or reseller, they have to apply for an exemption themselves.
Ward added that as of Saturday morning only 23 companies, with his Empire Unmanned being first on the list, have exemptions to operate drones for commercial agricultural purposes.
Ward outlined how the drones collect the data for growers and ranchers.
“They (drones) take a still picture and all those still pictures it takes are put on to a mosaic map of overlapping images,” he said, adding that one 3-D stereoscopic image is the end result.
As for ranchers, Ward said the drones can be equipped with thermal sensors to seek out water or check on irrigation systems.
“The drones (using thermal imaging) can even take the temperature of (a ranchers’) cows to see which ones are sick,” he said.
Ward points out that using drones and thermal imaging to keep an eye on cattle has never been done before, at least not legally, because to his knowledge Empire Unmanned is the only company to get federal approval to apply drones and thermal imaging to ranching.
But what if something should go wrong? A drone goes out of control, let’s say.
“One of the advantages (Empire Unmanned) has is we have $2 million of liability coverage,” Ward said.
Yet Ward doubts if his company will ever have to take advantage of that coverage because black and yellow drone called eBee it’s using — which is manufactured by the Swiss company senseFly — weighs about a pound and a half and is made mostly out of foam.
“There’s a You-Tube video showing a man knocking the drone out of the sky with his forehead,” Ward said, adding eBee can fly no higher than 400 feet “and you’re pushing really hard to get it to go 45 mph on a dive.”
Empire Unmanned has sky-high ambition, but seems to be pretty short player in the world of commercial aviation giants.
Ward said his company has only three employees, but expects to bring on more once business, well, takes off.
For those looking for a job flying an eBee drone with Empire Unmanned, Ward advises that an applicant must “be a private pilot with a Type 3 medical exam, and they have to meet the flight review requirements for the FAA.”
Yet, despite those requirements, Ward said, “We have no shortage of resumes, so we won’t have to go out of the state (to look for drone pilots).
And Empire Unmanned has, for now, has just one drone, which has yet to get off the ground because the company, as stated before, needs to have that final piece of the FAA regulatory puzzle in place. Five more eBees, however, are on order from senseFly, Ward said.
“In the short term, it is probably going to be pretty slow to start,” he said of his company’s upcoming startup. “We won’t keep all six airplanes busy.”
As an aside, Empire Unmanned this year plans to team up Donna Delparte, an assistant professor with Idaho State University’s Geosciences Department. Delparte’s background is in geographic information systems, or GIS, which is a mapping technology that allows the user to create and interact with a variety of maps and data sources. And Ward said his company’s UAS, will be used to assist Delparte with her research.
“Empire Unmanned is a valued research partner, and we will be collaborating with them to collect multi-spectral imagery using UAS to evaluate potato crop health this upcoming growing season,” Delparte told the Journal in an email early Saturday. “(Empire Unmanned) brings extensive expertise in safe UAS mission planning and flight operations.”
ISU has received a $150,000 federal grant to develop ways to use drones equipped with specialized sensors to monitor crop health.
As Ward stated earlier, drones allow farmers to monitor their fields quickly with less cost.
The aircraft can provide even greater advantages, Delparte told the Associated Press in a recent interview.
“Remote sensing technologies offer the potential to protect U.S. food security by providing rapid assessments of crop health over large areas,” she said.
Ward told the Journal on Friday his company “would like to share expenses” with ISU on Delparte’s potato crop project, but it hasn’t worked out those details with the university yet.