The practice of farming may be considered as old as dirt, but that hasn’t stopped people from coming up with new ways to improve the activity.
Just ask Hayden-based Empire Unmanned, which is finding ways to use Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones, to help growers gather important information about their crops. Officials of the company — the first in the nation to legally fly UAS as a service for agriculture imaging, according to its Facebook page — recently held a customer clinic in the Idaho Falls area, where they talked to farmers and agribusinesses about the technology.
“We feel that there will definitely be more people using the service in the future,” said Tyson Coles, an account manager for Empire Unmanned and one of the organizers of the clinic, adding that the data they provide can be valuable. “The data can be gathered relatively quickly and cover a lot of ground in a short period of time to help growers make management decisions.”
Coles said roughly 50 people attended the clinic where they were able to learn more about the drones and the data they can gather, as well as Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
“During the event, we went over the UAS itself and the software that controls it, as well as FAA regulations for commercial UAS use. We had a presentation with actual flight data to showcase the information that can be gathered with these drones,” Coles said. “This data can be utilized by the growers or by their agronomists to help make management decisions about how to apply seed, fertilizers or chemicals to better their crops. We then had a flight demonstration over a corn field to show UAS operation.”
Empire Unmanned currently uses the fixed-wing drone eBee Ag by senseFly, but is looking into other drones that could be helpful in other applications, Coles said.
When using the technology, they create a flight plan on a tablet or computer before a visual observer launches the drone into the air.
“Then the eBee Ag goes on autopilot and flies over the designated flight path taking pictures to create high resolution images that can be utilized by farmers to help make management decisions on their farms,” Coles said.
The drones offer several advantages. They operate under the clouds so, Coles said, they don’t usually have to worry about some of the issues that come with satellite-based imaging. They also run closer to the ground and can provide higher-resolution images, which can help farmers learn more about the health of the whole field — not just a small portion they can walk — and figure out where problems are occurring.
The technology can be helpful in other applications as well, Coles said, adding that drones can be used in situations that present safety hazards for humans, like monitoring wildland fires or inspecting cell towers.
“There are a number of people using the service right now. We are currently working with growers, agribusiness companies and other companies that are in other industries besides agriculture,” Coles said.
Still, Empire Unmanned officials are excited to be part of the “newest segment of precision agriculture and are dedicated to serving our customers,” Coles said.
And the company does have a lot of expertise to offer, according to officials.
The company was created through a partnership between Empire Airlines, Advanced Aviation Solutions and Blair Farms.
“Empire Airlines is the majority partner and brings decades of aviation business expertise. Advanced Aviation Solutions brings years of experience in Unmanned Aircraft Systems from both military and civilian experience,” said Brad Ward, president of Empire Unmanned. “Robert Blair of Blair Farms has been flying UAS over his farm in Kendrick, Idaho, since 2006 and is a noted expert in UAS and agricultural remote-sensing.”
For more information, visit www.empireunmanned.com.