Drones used to survey land, look at crops, sell homes in Idaho
By: Brad Iverson Long, Idaho Business Review
Eight Idaho companies now have approval from the federal government to fly drones for commercial purposes, and are using the unmanned flying vehicles equipped with cameras for a variety of business uses. Reflecting the state’s farming roots, several companies are using drones for agricultural purposes, including Empire Unmanned, the first company to gain Federal Aviation Administration approval to use drones for business purposes. Other companies are finding new uses for the technology.
It’s illegal to use drones or unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes without an exemption from the FAA. A July 3 report by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone found that the FAA gave out 501 such exemptions as of June 2, with the majority of new approvals coming in April and May. Per capita, Idaho has more approved companies than average.
The largest Idaho company to get approval to use drones is lumber company Idaho Forest Group, which is partnering with California drone services company Skycatch to use drones to take aerial images of its mills and its logging sites. In its application, the company said using drones could save lives, since some hard-to-get-to areas could be inspected or monitored by drones. The company could also use drones instead of small piloted airplanes to monitor its sites.
Like Empire Unmanned, new companies have formed to take advantage of drone technology. Aerial Productions and Imaging in Cascade got FAA approval in May. Managing member Tobie Olson said the company is open to using its drones for whatever it can, including shooting high-quality video for advertising or tourism promotion efforts. Olson’s partner Daniel Dunn is a surveyor who can use drones to speed up the process of volumetric quantification surveyor; that is, measuring how much material is in a quarry, mine or on a piece of land.
Olson said drones can speed up how quickly an area can be surveyed, since a drone with a video camera can gather more data, more quickly than someone working on foot. As an example, he said a recent 13.5-acre survey of a rock creek took four and a half days on foot, plus time to process the data gathered.
“We flew the same sight and processed the same information in 36 hours,” Olson said. Olson’s new company has FAA approval to fly a drone made by DJI, a Chinese manufacturer that recently raised $75 million from venture capital firms, as well as a drone custom built by Boise firm Thrust-UAV.
An eastern Idaho real estate agent, Rick Robinson with Team Greene Real Estate in Rexburg, is using his FAA exemption to help showcase and sell houses. He can pilot drones over houses for a better view for online home listings, and also show how close they are to parks or other amenities.
“I knew that it’s something that not everyone would be able to do, and would give us a competitive edge,” Robinson said.
Both Robinson and Olson have pilot’s licenses, which is a requirement for any company that wants to use drones commercially. Robinson called the FAA requirements on commercial use of drones “crazy,” though he said his flying background does give him an advantage.
“Anybody could fly it, but there are so many restrictions from the FAA,” Robinson said. He flies a DJI quadcopter drone, which can be purchased at Amazon and other retailers.
Olson said the regulations and lengthy process for businesses to get FAA approval are there for a good reason: safety.
“People that aren’t pilots or don’t have the knowledge of airspace don’t even know when they’re potentially creating a danger,” Olson said.
The other Idaho companies that have FAA exemptions to use drones for commercial purposes are Celestial Imaging in Ammon, which uses drones for photography, Snake River Search in Idaho Falls, which uses drones for search operations for missing persons, Aerial Precision Survey in Star, which uses drones for agricultural purposes, and Take Flight UAS in Boise, which uses drones for agricultural, research, natural resource monitoring and other purposes.
The Center for the Study of the Drone report found that 42 percent of companies that have FAA exemptions work in photography or film. The second most popular industry is utilities, energy and infrastructure. Other industries with more than 10 percent of the FAA exemptions are real estate, agriculture and construction.