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Idaho drone operator sees sales triple as focus widens

Jan. 13, 2017 Updated Fri., Jan. 13, 2017 at 2:06 p.m.

Brad Ward, of Empire Unmanned, launches a drone in August 2016 on Five Mile Prairie in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Brad Ward, of Empire Unmanned, launches a drone in August 2016 on Five Mile Prairie in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A North Idaho operator of unmanned aircraft systems tripled its sales in 2016 as it widened its focus beyond agricultural jobs such as monitoring crops, livestock and timber stands.

Empire Unmanned, based in Hayden, experienced “tremendous growth” in mining, engineering and structure inspections, the company said Friday. The company flew for 72 customers on 257 flights.

Using drones, the company maps and examines stockpile volumes, documents the progression of construction work, and inspects bridges and road surfaces, among other applications of the fast-growing technology.

Empire also developed a certification course required for commercial small drone pilots under new Federal Aviation Administration rules. The course will be offered to the public for the first time in February through North Idaho College, taught by company President Brad Ward, a retired Air Force pilot.

Empire soon will offer its certification course at other sites throughout Idaho and the Northwest, Ward said. Commercial drone operators no longer must have a professional pilot’s license under the federal rules.

“We are also opening up the company’s Global Information System data processing and analysis services to outside contracts,” Ward said.

The company said it has expanded its storage capacity, processing speed and delivery, allowing it to manage data storage and GIS processing for other drone operators.

Empire Unmanned, a division of Empire Airlines, was the eighth company in the U.S. to receive an FAA exemption to operate drones for commercial purposes. The company is adding California, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska to its existing service area of Idaho, Washington, Montana, Utah and Oregon.

Empire Unmanned has 16 employees in Coeur d’Alene, Boise, Pocatello, California’s Central Valley and Monument, Colorado. Staff members include a geographic information system director and two analysts.

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