CALDWELL, Idaho — Dozens of eyes gazed skyward April 22 as an unmanned aerial vehicle flew slowly over Bitner Vineyards, taking images of the operation’s 15 acres of wine grapes.
The event marked the first legal commercial flight of a UAV for agricultural purposes in Southern Idaho.
It was hosted by Empire Unmanned, an Idaho business that in January became the first company to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly UAVs commercially for agriculture.
“Today, we are trying to generate awareness of this technology by a live flight operation,” said Empire founder and CEO Steven Edgar. “That is critical to getting the word out to people about what this technology can do.”
Several dozen people attended the demonstration, including representatives of Idaho’s potato, wheat, barley, wine and sugar beet industries, as well as people from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, USDA and agribusinesses.
“People have heard about (this technology), they’ve read about it and now they’re going to actually see it,” Empire business relationship manager Gary Smith said before the demonstration.
The UAV, which weighs 1.5 pounds, has five sensors in its camera and takes high-powered images of a farm operation.
Those images are uploaded to “the cloud” and analysts use data gleaned from them to provide usable information to the farmer, including whether a crop is suffering from water stress or nitrogen or phosphorus deficiency.
“The farmer doesn’t need a Ph.D. to figure out what he’s looking at,” Edgar said. “We give him a very simple product that shows him where he’s short on water and (other inputs).”
Smith said the technology will help farmers maximize their profits.
“Every farmer ... wants to get the most out of the land he has and he wants to do that for a lower price. This technology will help them do that,” he said.
After the UAV finished its flight, Empire employees demonstrated on computer screens how the system works and how the data can be used.
“We think this is a really exciting technological advance,” said Dennis Tanikuni, Idaho Farm Bureau Federation’s assistant director of governmental affairs. “We certainly think it’s going to be a valuable tool as far as field inspection and the ability to measure chemical uptake and monitor depredation.”
North Idaho farmer Robert Blair, a partner with Empire Unmanned, said the potential for UAVs in agriculture is vast.
“We have not even begun to tap the potential,” he said. “Right now we’re limited to doing imagery and mapping. Pretty soon, when the (FAA) regulations come out, the systems prove themselves and the technology gets better, we’ll be doing more things.”
Edgar said the technology will help farmers save on water and other inputs while maximizing yields and can revolutionize the farming industry.
“If you integrate it with the tractors and the planters and the harvesters, now you have a precision agriculture system,” he said.