University of Idaho - I Banner
A student works at a computer


U of I's web-based retention and advising tool provides an efficient way to guide and support students on their road to graduation. Login to VandalStar.

UI, INL and Idaho Companies Partner to Expand Unmanned Aerial Systems Capabilities

July 14, 2016

The Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) industry has great potential to help Idahoans with precision agriculture, natural resource monitoring, wildland fire management and more. The University of Idaho, two Idaho industry partners and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are joining forces to advance the state’s UAS capabilities and bring the technology to new customers.

UI and INL will work with data-management company zData Inc., which has an office in Boise, and Empire Unmanned — a company with locations in Hayden, Boise and Pocatello that uses unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, to gather images and data about crops, forests, mining properties and other land from the sky. Empire Unmanned is the eighth company in the nation to receive Federal Aviation Administration authorization that allows it to operate commercial unmanned aircraft.

A $161,000 grant from the Idaho Department of Commerce’s Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) will fund the first, year-long phase of the collaboration, which began July 1.

Phase 1 focuses on improving Empire Unmanned’s technologies for acquiring and processing UAS data and distributing that data to its customers.

"The FAA's recent changes to drone regulations will drive more and more drone operators to look for big-data solutions with hands-on customer service,” said Brad Ward, president of Empire Unmanned. “We're excited about the opportunity to build a world-class data processing and management system for unmanned aircraft with our partners in Idaho." 

UI will serve as the project lead, responsible for bringing the partners together and tracking their progress. Paul Gessler, director of UI’s Northwest Knowledge Network and a scientist with expertise in remote sensing, is the project’s principal investigator. NKN technology and data services manager Luke Sheneman will be the project manager.

UI also will engage researchers across the university who work with UAS, remote sensing technologies and data management, and will establish programs for workforce development with the goal of preparing Idahoans for jobs in the UAS industry as it expands.

“The University of Idaho is committed to helping Idaho industries access the technologies, expertise and employees they need to successfully expand and become leaders in emerging fields such as Unmanned Aerial Systems,” said Jack McIver, UI Vice President for Research and Economic Development.

zData Inc. will bring its Big Data and application development experience to the project, as well as UI ties: company president Dan Feldhusen is an alumnus.

“This IGEM grant is an exciting opportunity for zData to use knowledge gained from working with many Fortune 100 customers to empower small businesses in Idaho,” Feldhusen said. “We plan to expand our local engineering and employee base so that other companies in the area will be able to leverage the latest methodologies and technical solutions coming out of Silicon Valley. We are hoping this collaboration will provide a gateway for zData to share knowledge with other Idaho companies getting started in the Big Data space.”

INL will provide guidance in data collection and visualization methods through Idaho’s Autonomous Systems Center of Excellence at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) in Idaho Falls. INL and CAES will create the laboratory’s first “engineer in residence,” who will work with zData to accelerate technology related to the project.

“Idaho National Laboratory is engaged in world-class big data analytics and visualization,” said Howard Grimes, CAES director for industry innovation. “We have applied these capabilities to some of the largest and most sophisticated analysis of electrical vehicle mobility in the world. This collaboration allows us to bring this expertise to the rapidly growing unmanned system market and define new opportunities for our region.”

Media Contacts:
Tara Roberts
University of Idaho Communications
Office of Research and Economic Development

Nicole Stricker
Senior Science Writer, Idaho National Laboratory

Brock Lipple
Empire Unmanned

Katie Mooney
zData Inc.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 12,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at