Drone companies prepare to train pilots, expand opportunities

Brad Ward, president of Idaho-based Empire Unmanned, launches a drone to scout a farm field in April 2016. Ward and his company's co-founder will be teaching classes to build the pool of remote pilots at Idaho community colleges.

HAYDEN, Idaho — Officials with locally based Empire Unmanned will start offering classes soon through two Idaho community colleges to build a pool of pilots for the growing commercial drone industry.

Western businesses using drones to provide an array of services, including imaging for precision-agriculture, say they are poised for significant expansion this season, thanks in part to the recent easing of regulations governing their pilots.

Late last summer, the Federal Aviation Administration eliminated a requirement that drone operators also be licensed to pilot manned aircraft. The new rules allow those without a pilot’s license to take a 16-hour course and pass a test in order to get a remote pilot’s license.

Empire Unmanned President Brad Ward will teach the first class at North Idaho College Feb. 11-12. The company’s co-founder, Steve Edgar, will teach another course, with a date yet to be set, at Treasure Valley Community College. Ward anticipates offering courses every other month, depending on demand.

“We’ll be able to expand into other areas that were harder to find pilots to do the flying now,” Ward said.

His company has already added two employees who obtained a remote pilot certificate but previously didn’t have a pilot’s license.

“There are lots of military vets who have spent hundreds of hours flying drones but aren’t a pilot,” Ward said. “We can hire them now.”

Ward said his company focused on precision agriculture prior to last year, when it tripled sales by moving into other sectors such as mining, engineering and structure inspections.

“We’re hoping to double or triple our sales this year based on last year’s growth,” Ward said, adding he anticipates growth this year in surrounding states such as Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah.

Ward said his company should better serve its clients this year thanks to an Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission grant to partner with the Boise company zData, Inc., on an improved data-management system. Data will be collected more quickly, and the software will make sure it transfers properly and any corrupt files are re-sent.

Kirk Ellern, co-founder of the Reno, Nev.-based drone service Above NV, also plans to serve a broader area, covering 11 western states, thanks to the pilot-certification change. Ellern is optimistic his business will post a five-fold increase in business this year compared with last year, led by the mining sector. He said low commodity prices have slowed demand to use drones to monitor lower-value crops, such as alfalfa and wheat.

“The first thing we’re going to look at is to start hiring people,” Ellern said.

Ellern’s company has developed software to evaluate rangeland using multiple cameras mounted on drones, quantifying the ratio of sage brush and other native plants to invasive plants such as cheat grass. His company intends to work with the Bureau of Land Management and University of Nevada, Reno researchers this spring to prove the concept, before attempting broader pilot projects.

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