SALT LAKE CITY — The technological leap from the fun and buzzy little drones now plying the airspace above most neighborhoods and parks to flying machines large enough to transport a package, or people, has already been made.
And now a new Utah group is hoping to clear a path for the state to become a leader in the wave of drone innovations that some believe will render other remarkable advancements like self-driving cars a moot point while turning the near-overhead airspace into a much busier place.
"The biggest untapped resource in the U.S. and the world is our airspace," said Tulinda Larsen, executive director of the newly formed Deseret Unmanned Aerial Systems. "And that's where Deseret UAS is stepping up."
Deseret UAS is the result of a joint effort by Tooele and Box Elder counties in partnership with Ogden city to advance the work of Utah businesses working in the arena of unmanned aerial systems and attract new endeavors to the state. Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne said the idea sprang from the pursuit of new ideas to help create high-paying, tech-centric jobs for residents that were closer to home.
"Deseret UAS is the culmination of three years of hard work on behalf of Tooele and Box Elder counties aimed at creating jobs," Milne said. "Right now, 75 percent of our residents are commuting to the Salt Lake Valley for work and we recognized years ago that we want to reverse that trend."
To that end, Deseret UAS pursued fiscal help from the Utah Legislature and secured $1.2 million in funding in the last session that is helping get the effort off the ground. Larsen said the group will be headquartered at a space called the Xperience Center in Tooele that has a nearby area for small-scale test flying, but is also working to secure larger test flight ranges. A dearth of testing facilities, which must secure a Federal Aviation Administration signoff to be used by drone developers, is one of the key hindrances that her group is addressing, Larsen said.
"In 2013, the FAA established seven test sites … the closest of which is in Nevada," Larsen said. "But they're mostly being used for regulatory work, and commercial operators can't use the sites for testing."
Larsen said her group has already established a conduit for drone companies to make use of a Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK) site in Box Elder County, has an FAA-approved urban testing area in Ogden and is working with the Tooele Army Depot to make use of a site there that could open up a 25-square-mile test range.
That news is music to the ears of John Manning, founder of Utah startup ElectraFly. Manning and his team are developing drone aircraft with the goal of expanding payload and range and have already had a prototype craft up and flying. Manning said the access to critical resources, like test flight ranges, that Deseret UAS is working to provide couldn't be more opportune for ElectraFly.
"The work that Deseret UAS is doing is really a miracle for us in terms of how the timing is working out," Manning said. "Having designated flight areas where FAA exemptions are in place is critical to us and the industry to making continued research progress."
ElectraFly is taking a unique approach to its drone design that is working to combine the best flight characteristics of both fixed-wing and multirotor craft. The company already has some 20 patent applications for technology it innovated and is hoping to be entering full-fledged test flight mode early next year. Manning said the industry is still very much in its infancy and praised the UAS effort for its forward-thinking stance.
"This technology is here to stay," Manning said. "Having Deseret UAS and Tooele County thinking far ahead is really the kind of thing that will start putting Utah on the map in this industry. We're watching the whole movie unfold in front of our eyes and are very fortunate to have UAS helping to make it all possible."5 comments on this story
Larsen said putting Utah in front of the pack on advancing and commercializing drone technology is her group's raison d'être. She also believes Deseret UAS will help accelerate the work of the state's two dozen or so companies already working in the drone space as well as attract new players to the Beehive State.
"Are we going to move the needle," Larsen said. "The answer is yes. We already have six companies knocking on our door...and I just spoke with a company that's talking about projects that will bring 350 jobs here to Utah."
Deseret UAS plans to cut the ribbon on its new Xperience Center on Wednesday.