- Associated Press - Saturday, February 7, 2015

HAYDEN, Idaho (AP) - Empire Airlines has joined forces with two other companies to form a new industry in Idaho utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles.

The company is called Empire Unmanned, LLC, and it is the first commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems business in the United States authorized to legally fly drones as a service for agriculture.

Empire Airlines joined Advanced Aviation Solutions of Star, Idaho; and Blair Farms of Kendrick, Idaho to create the new venture.

“We plan to start out fairly small this year,” said Tim Komberec, CEO of Empire Airlines. “But as we get through startup, I can see 50 to 75 people associated with it pretty easily.”

The FAA requires drone operators to be licensed private pilots, have a third-class medical certification and an active biennial flight review.

Komberec said the company has been working with the community colleges in Idaho to develop training programs for the new industry, and Empire Airlines will have an in-house training program as well, Komberec said.

Brad Ward, president of Empire Unmanned, said the company will operate from Empire Airlines’ headquarters in Hayden.

The company is the first in the nation to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to use drone technology to inspect commercial crops.

“We hope to have our first commercial flight by March,” Ward said, adding the company’s last flight was in June 2014, after the FAA banned the use of drone technology for commercial purposes.

“Farmers can legally use unmanned vehicles to fly over their personal property and gardens,” Ward said. “But not over their commercial crops.”

Ward said the company stopped flying after the FAA ruling last year, but had collected enough data to make its case to the federal regulators.

Ward and Steve Edgar, president of Advanced Aviation Solutions, both have experience operating drones for the military, which Ward said gave them a little bit of an advantage when seeking FAA approval.

“I was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years,” he said, adding he also spent two years in the Pentagon writing policies for the use of unmanned aircraft.

“So we know where the FAA is coming from,” Ward said.

While it did receive its exemption from FAA’s commercial ban on drones, the company is still awaiting a certificate of authorization from local air traffic controllers in Salt Lake City; Great Falls, Mont. and Seattle.

“That is the one last piece we are waiting on,” he said.

The exemption has a lot of regulations to ensure the privacy of others, and that the pilot remains in control of the aircraft while it’s in flight.

The planes cannot be flown within a 5-mile radius of an existing airport and can never be more than a half-mile away from the pilot.

“The planes are pretty small. You can still see them at a half-mile, but not very well at a mile,” Ward said. “Many of the restrictions placed on us are designed to ensure the pilot can see the plane at all times.”

Depending on the information the farming client wants, Ward said, Empire Unmanned will charge by the project, by the hour or by the acre.

A five-minute video of a test flight, created by America’s Heartland, is posted on Blair Three Canyons Farm website.

Owner Robert Blair, who has been flying drones for seven years, says the cost savings to farmers is very high.

Blair told America’s Heartland that it only takes about 30 minutes to collect data on a 160-acre field. Walking or driving that property to collect the same data would take hours, he said.

“The cost savings alone are quite obvious in the time savings alone,” he said.

Blair said the rigid Styrofoam airplanes fly a grid pattern over the fields and rely information back to antennas that are connected to remote computer systems.

A farmer can gather information on nitrogen concentrations of the crops, moisture levels and equipment issues, such as irrigation leaks and more.

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Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, http://www.cdapress.com

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