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Drone pioneer looks to expand into aircargo

Executive foresees company operating Boeing 747-sized cargo drones within 10 years.

Idaho-based drone pioneer Empire Unmanned LLC may be a small company, but it has big dreams. Right now, its main business is conducting land surveys for agricultural clients via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But founder Steve Edgar has much loftier ambitions. Instead of just flying small drones like the quadcopters, blimps, and hand-launched 1.7-pound senseFly eBee that Empire Unmanned currently uses, he believes it could be operating Boeing 747-sized cargo drones as soon as a decade from now.

As for the facilities to accommodate such an operation, Edgar has some ideas on that too. Empire Unmanned is working with state leaders and economic development officials to explore the idea of building an international unmanned airfreight hub at the Pocatello Regional Airport, he said in a Nov. 18 speech at Idaho State University. The site has the benefits of proximity to a main Union Pacific rail line, access to two interstate highways, its profile as an underused airport surrounded by open space, and access to researchers at nearby universities, Edgar told the group.

The chief impediment to these plans are U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations that currently allow the commercial use of drones only within the pilot's line of sight and below an altitude of 400 feet. To allow Edgar's dream to take off, the FAA would have to significantly ease both restrictions.

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