A newly formed consortium of Northwest companies is the first to receive an exemption from federal aviation regulations to use unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture.

Advanced Aviation Solutions in Star, Idaho, and Empire Airlines in Hayden, Idaho, are forming Empire Unmanned, to be based in Hayden, which will do agriculture flying. The company recently received an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly commercially, providing a service to farmers and other agribusinesses.

“Being the first is always a big deal.” said Robert Blair, a partner in Advanced Aviation Solutions and a wheat farmer in Kendrick, Idaho.

Empire Unmanned will serve Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and Idaho, using UAVs for crop scans to make management decisions.

“Intuitively, we know that precision agriculture is going to increase yields and reduce inputs,” said Brad Ward, vice president of Advanced Aviation Solutions. “Industry-wide, there’s no concrete information to say percentages that this is going to save the farmer on both sides, but we know it does.”

The company is discussing working with Washington State University and the University of Idaho to support research and determine actual increases.

“Having another layer of information from the air is going to add to the farmer’s decision-making ability,” Ward said.

The FAA exemption for Empire Unmanned covers a specific UAV called an eBee. The company picked that model because it already had FAA documentation and did not have to be evaluated for airworthiness, Blair said.

Under the exemption, the UAV can operate at altitudes lower than 400 feet, with the UAV within line of sight, for a half-hour of flight time.

The exemption requires that the UAV operator have a private pilot’s license.

Farmers cannot use UAVs for scouting their fields.

“They can fly as a hobby, but the minute they take pictures and use it for management decisions, they are breaking the law,” Blair said. “Growers now have a legal means to be able to use UAVs to fly their fields, they can use us as a service.”

The FAA can levy a $10,000 fine for breaking the rules, Ward said.

“This is conjecture, but there are probably people who are cheating on that rule, sure,” he said.

Ward believes the FAA wants to develop a special operator’s certification for UAVs. They use pilot certification currently because private pilots have the necessary skills, he said.

“Eventually I think we will see an (unmanned aircraft system) operator’s certificate that’s within the reach of most farmers,” he said.

Blair believes the company will be a test case for the FAA for future commercial use in agriculture, considering safety protocols and less-restrictive flying requirements.

Empire Unmanned is the 13th company to receive an exemption, Ward said, and the first for agriculture. Other exemptions have been granted to companies in the motion picture, energy, surveying and real estate industries.

The company applied for the exemption last July.

Blair estimates he could increase value by $10 per acre by using UAVS to monitor his fields.

“If we can identify things that need to be done during the growing season, we can start adding a couple dollars an acre here or there and be a lot more efficient,” he said.

Blair hopes the company will begin flying commercially in March.

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