Using drones in Idaho agriculture and getting paid by state grants


Staff member
From the University of Idaho


Unmanned aerial vehicles already help Idahoans with precision agriculture, natural-resource monitoring, wildland fire management and more. Now two companies are taking advantage of a state grant to join with the University of Idaho and Idaho National Laboratory to advance the industry’s capabilities and bring its technology to new customers.

The university and lab will work with zData Inc., a Delaware data-management company whose operations office is in Boise, and Empire Unmanned, a company with locations in Hayden, Boise and Pocatello that uses unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly called drones — to gather images and data about crops, forests, mining properties and other land.

Empire Unmanned was the eighth company in the nation to receive Federal Aviation Administration authorization to operate commercial unmanned aircraft. In March, Empire bought Advanced Aviation Solutions, a Star company that had received the first exemption from FAA rules to operate commercial drones.

A $161,000 grant from the Idaho Department of Commerce’s Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission will fund the first, year-long phase of the collaboration, which began July 1. Phase 1 focuses on improving Empire Unmanned’s technologies for acquiring and processing data and distributing it to customers.

“The FAA’s recent changes to drone regulations will drive more and more drone operators to look for big-data solutions with hands-on customer service,” says Brad Ward, president of Empire.

zData Inc. will bring its big-data and application-development experience.

“We plan to expand our local engineering and employee base so that other companies in the area will be able to leverage the latest methodologies and technical solutions coming out of Silicon Valley,” said Dan Feldhusen, zData’s president and a U of I alumnus.

The U of I will bring the partners together and track their progress. Paul Gessler, director of the university’s Northwest Knowledge Network and a scientist with expertise in remote sensing, is the principal investigator. Network technology and data services manager Luke Sheneman will manage the project.

The U of I also will engage researchers across the university who work with unmanned aerial systems, remote-sensing technologies and data management, and will establish programs for workforce development to prepare Idahoans for jobs in the industry.

“The University of Idaho is committed to helping Idaho industries access the technologies, expertise and employees they need to successfully expand and become leaders in emerging fields such as Unmanned Aerial Systems,” said Jack McIver, vice president for research and economic development.

INL will provide guidance in data collection and visualization methods through Idaho’s Autonomous Systems Center of Excellence at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (in Idaho Falls. INL and CAES will create the laboratory’s first “engineer in residence,” who will work with zData to accelerate technology.

“We have applied these capabilities to some of the largest and most sophisticated analysis of electrical-vehicle mobility in the world,” said Howard Grimes, CAES director for industry innovation. “This collaboration allows us to bring this expertise to the rapidly growing unmanned-system market and define new opportunities for our region.”