The North Idaho drone company Empire Unmanned tripled its revenue last year and is expecting another year of strong growth in 2017.
Empire Unmanned launched in January 2015 after receiving an FAA exemption to operate drones for commercial purposes. The company mostly used its drones to help agricultural clients monitor fields that year, said Brad Ward, president of Empire Unmanned.
In late 2015, the company began investing in research and development to build better cameras, new software and develop new flying techniques. The equipment and techniques that Empire developed have helped the company increase its customer base and allowed it to charge more for projects, Ward said.
“We tripled our revenue, but we actually didn’t triple our number of flights – those only increased a little,” he said. “What changed was our efficiency – -we had to do less second flights on projects. We’ve just gotten better at it.”
Empire Unmanned added better cameras and software to its drones so the drones could survey large sections of land and measure height differences within an inch and a half of accuracy. This allowed Empire to add clients in need of more specific surveying data such as engineers and mining companies.
The company also attached thermal cameras to its drones and learned new flying techniques that allow drones to get closer to towers and buildings to read labels and look for escaping heat. This allowed the company to add clients in need of structural inspections.
“As we got better at the services we provided, and were able to collect more sophisticated data, we were able to charge more,” Ward said.
The company plans to increase its revenue again in 2017, but Ward didn’t have an estimate for how much. He did say he expects growth from new revenue streams.
Empire Unmanned will begin offering two-day drone pilot certification classes at North Idaho College in February and the company also plans to add clients in California, Wyoming Colorado and Nebraska. Its existing customers are in Idaho, Washington, Montana, Utah and Oregon.
Ward declined to say how much money Empire Unmanned made in 2015 or 2016.