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Idaho partners plan drone research entity

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

Idaho is looking to open an entity focused on developing and promoting Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and much of the research geared toward agriculture.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — The Idaho National Laboratory plans to collaborate with the Idaho Department of Commerce, industry leaders and the state’s universities to establish an entity devoted to researching unmanned aerial systems.

Officials say agriculture would likely be the primary beneficiary of the entity’s technological advancements.

The partners intend to develop a center of excellence — a shared facility focusing on research, training and support for a common area of interest — to promote UAS technology at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies. CAES is a partnership of INL and the three state universities dedicated to the development of new technology.

Steven Edgar, president and CEO of Advanced Aviation Solutions, heads a state task force that’s been working with IDC to plan the entity. He said CAES infrastructure and staff would be instrumental in supporting the new center of excellence, which would be ideally located in Idaho Falls close to INL, where extensive research and development of UAS technology has taken place for 17 years.

Idaho had hoped to obtain Federal Aviation Administration support toward its goal but learned in December it wasn’t among the six states selected as FAA test sites for a UAS program. In January, Edgar and his partners determined Idaho has enough resources to pursue the concept on its own.

He estimates the center would require a $250,000 investment during each of its first two years, and costs could be shared by IDC, agricultural commodity groups, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and others who stand to benefit — and might like to have representation on a center board of directors that would drive its research agenda.

“The State of Idaho is eminently positioned to move forward in this arena, and this industry’s potential to serve the state goes well beyond what people envision,” Edgar said.

He’s confident the center, which he believes could be developed within a year, would also attract businesses, given that 25 aerospace companies relocated to Grand Forks, N.D., after that state opened a UAS center of excellence.

Robert Blair, a Kendrick farmer who is president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and a member of Idaho’s UAS task force, said UAS technology has helped him detect crop stress before it becomes visible to the naked eye. He believes research, data and innovations that would come from the proposed center would help farmers better manage their resources.

The partners advancing the center plan to promote their concept during the upcoming Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International exhibition in Orlando, Fla., from May 12-15.

“Our state has an unmatched blend of resources, infrastructure and desire to advance this emerging industry,” IDC Director Jeffrey Sayer said in a press release.

Derek Wadsworth, INL’s UAS program director, said the laboratory offers 890 square miles of remote terrain for testing purposes, and experts who have worked for years at developing sensors with diverse applications for agriculture and other fields, as well as sensor integration into aircraft controls.



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