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Small Idaho Firms on Cutting Edge of Ag Technology

Flickr- Kevin Baird -

A small airline based at the Coeur d'Alene Airport has suddenly become the national leader in new agricultural technology. Empire Airlines has linked up with a tiny garage-based company in Star Idaho and a farmer in Kendrick Idaho to offer the first - and so far, only - commercial endeavor using drones as farm machines.

The new company is called Empire Unmanned LLC. It's the first in the nation to win federal approval to use unmanned aerial vehicles - drones - to inspect commercial crops.

The first drones offered for agricultural use are small -they're bat-wing shaped styrofoam planes equipped with sensors to measure nitrogen content of crops, soil moisture levels or even equipment problems such as irrigation leaks.

The Federal Aviation Administration has set out some tough rules for commercial drone operators. They must be licensed pilots, hold federal medical certifications and undergo flight proficiency checks every two years.

The drones cannot be flown more than a half mile away from the operator, and they are prohibited within five miles of an airport.

Robert Blair, the Idaho farmer who is part of the new company, said aerial inspection of cropland by drones will mean significant cost savings. He said a drone can zip over a 160-acre field in a matter of minutes rather than the hours it would take to walk or drive over the same area.

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