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Idaho Startup Wins FAA Approval For Drones In Farming

senseFly Ltd.
ADAVSO plans to fly the battery-powered eBee Ag drone, manufactured by senseFly Ltd of Switzerland.

Idaho-based startup Advanced Aviation Solutions has become the first company to win federal approval to use drones in farm settings.

The goal is to use small drones to help Northwest farmers grow crops more efficiently.

The company is co-owned by two Air Force veterans who retired to the inland Northwest. It now has the green light to market a fixed wing drone for use over farms.

Company president Steve Edgar said the 1.5-pound drone with a three-foot wingspan can be equipped with a high resolution camera to measure crop stress from overwatering, bad soil or bugs.

"If we can identify the stress early on and pinpoint it to a very high degree of accuracy, then the farmer can take corrective action early in the growth cycle to increase his yields,” he said.

Edgar said the aerial scouting can enable more precise application of water, fertilizer and chemicals, which reduces costs from overuse and associated environmental impacts.

The Federal Aviation Administration put numerous conditions in its approval letter that would not apply to a hobbyist flying a similar sized drone. Among other things, the commercial drone operator must be a certified pilot, keep maintenance records, and be teamed with a ground observer.

Several other Northwest companies including are still waiting for FAA approval to fly unmanned aircraft for business purposes.

Edgar said he is optimistically targeting March 2015 to begin flight operations with the drones-for-hire. His company still needs another FAA approval, which will list the specific geographic areas judged safe to fly within. Advanced Aviation Solutions initially hopes to serve farm customers in rural Idaho, eastern Washington and eastern Oregon.

In fits and starts, the FAA is processing exemptions like this to its standing ban on commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems. Several years ago, Congress directed the agency to write rules to integrate small unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. The FAA missed a self-imposed deadline to release a draft of those rules by the end of 2014.

Increasingly, American politicians and business leaders are voicing concerns that other countries with more accommodating regulatory regimes will reap the benefits of the developing drone industry. But in the nation's capital, as well as state capitals such as Olympia and Salem, complicated privacy and safety considerations are slowing down the promulgation of drone regulations.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.