Officials want 'drones' buzzing over Utah
Economy • Alliance making bid to turn Utah into testing site for commercial unmanned aircraft.
Published: April 3, 2013 07:36AM
Updated: July 7, 2013 11:30PM
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An alliance of Utah universities and the Governor's Office of Economic Development are making a bid to turn some of Utah's airspace into a testing ground for commercial and civil unmanned aerial systems such as this aircraft from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is used for climate research. Courtesy photo

An alliance made up of Utah universities and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development is making a bid to turn part of the state into a testing ground for “unmanned aerial systems.” You may know them as drones.

But officials from the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance stress it’s not military drones that would be buzzing around Utah’s airspace if they were awarded the contract from the Federal Aviation Administration. The devices are drones that help people, not blow up villages.

“Think of an aircraft that can fly in [conditions] not safe to be in,” said GOED spokesman Michael Sullivan. “Like fighting a forest fire or going into a fire and seeing what’s going on.”

Marshall Wright, GOED’s director of business development for aerospace and defense industries, said these unmanned aircraft could be used for precision farming such as applying pesticides more efficiently or mapping out urban infrastructure.

“We’re not talking about military drones,” he said, “but technology . . . that can be used for civil or commercial applications.”

Congress has mandated that the FAA establish six test sites in the U.S. for unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The alliance is in the middle of its bid process, and the FAA is expected to make a final decision on the six sites this December. The sites would be used to test the operation, capabilities and protocol of unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace, as well as in the same airspace being used by commercial aircraft.

For the sake of the bid, Wright would not reveal which areas in Utah are being considered as test sites, but they will be announced if the alliance wins the contract. He said they would be remote and not over populated land.“We are taking a crawl, walk, run attitude,” Wright said about how the test sites would be used. “We would start with very remote areas then move into more populated airspace.”

The alliance claims the economic benefits to becoming one of the test sites would be enormous.

“All or many of the companies that are involved in unmanned systems would have to migrate here to evaluate and test their systems,” Wright said.

He said that by 2025, the UAS industry could create more than 100,000 jobs in the U.S. and that a quarter of all U.S. military aircraft alone will be unmanned.

“What that would mean in Utah, we’re looking at that,” Wright said. “But what we’re seeing is well over a couple hundred jobs that represent the kinds of incomes ranging from $70,000 to $100,000 per year.”

Wright said winning the contract also could boost Utah’s aerospace companies, including Alliant Techsystems, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“Research universities will make technology that will go on these systems to guide them and operate them and do the applications,” he added about other possible economic impacts of winning the contract. “We have a lot going on. Utah has a legacy in this area, we have a legacy in manned aerospace, which will bleed into unmanned activities.”

But officials acknowledge one of their tasks will be convincing the public that the drones they want flying around Utah won’t shoot at people — or spy on them.

“We’re going to be very open,” GOED’s Sullivan said. “and very interested in letting people understand how this will improve the quality of their environment.”

vince@sltrib.com

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