Idaho company envisions drone freight hub in Pocatello

John O'Connell/Capital PressSteve Edgar, founder of Hayden, Idaho-based Empire Unmanned, speaks Nov. 18 at Idaho State University in Pocatello about his hopes of creating an international freight hub at the Pocatello Regional Airport for Boeing 747-sized cargo drones.

POCATELLO, Idaho — An Idaho company that has pioneered the use of drones in agriculture plans to investigate the Pocatello Regional Airport as the potential site of a future international unmanned air-freight hub.

Steve Edgar, founder of Hayden-based Empire Unmanned, presented his vision for the future of aerial shipping Nov. 18 at Idaho State University before a crowd of state leaders and economic development officials.

Though Edgar emphasized it could be more than a decade before Boeing 747-size unmanned aircraft are hauling cargo, he intends to conduct an analysis of infrastructure at the airport and the surrounding community during 2017.

Edgar said Pocatello is his top choice because of its under-served airport surrounded by open space, location on a main Union Pacific rail line and access to two interstate highways. Furthermore, he said ISU and the Idaho National Laboratory provide expertise in the field.

“Pocatello has all of the infrastructure in place if they wanted to pursue development of an unmanned aviation base,” Edgar said, adding a 4.7 percent annual increase in global air freight is projected throughout the next two decades, and there’s a worldwide pilot shortage. “What we’re really talking about is the opening rounds of discussion.”

Assuming other investors share Edgar’s enthusiasm, Airport Manager David Allen believes the city should study how to best position itself to take advantage of the opportunity.

“I think it’s worth looking at this,” Allen said. “It would be a fun bone to chew on.”

In August of 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration approved protocol for the commercial use of drones within the pilot’s line of sight and below an altitude of 400 feet. Empire Unmanned was the eighth company to receive an FAA drone exemption.

Edgar is optimistic the FAA will clear the next hurdle toward making his lofty ambitions a reality some time next year, allowing pilots to fly drones beyond their line of site. He expects FAA will be selective in approving exemptions for operating drones beyond line of sight, but believes his company is well positioned to be included.

In the near term, Edgar believes the anticipated FAA rule change will help his company cover more ground with its existing services in farming, mining, timber, natural resource management, civil engineering and aquaculture.

“The first thing we’ll do is larger farms,” Edgar said. “Instead of doing 400 acres at a time, I’ll do 1,000 acres at a time.”

His company now flies drones in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Business has grown rapidly, increasing by 169 percent this year over 2015 and is projected to grow by 100 percent in 2017.

However, jobs in agriculture, which represented 41 percent of Empire’s business in 2015, shrank to 17 percent of this year’s business, due to low commodity prices, Edgar said.

He sees growth potential in surveying, mining and inspections of railways, power lines and pipelines.

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