Washington • Drones could soon be zipping around some regions of Utah to help spray crops, survey wildfire damage and eventually, deliver cargo to far-flung areas.
The state is vying to be one of six test sites sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration as the government weighs how such unmanned (and unarmed) aerial systems could fit into the airspace now reserved for piloted aircraft. The program is aimed at commercial and academic uses, not military. “One of the greatest things for our state is this is probably, arguably one of the most important advances in aviation since the Wright brothers,” says Wayne Dornan, dean of the College of Aviation and Public Services at Utah Valley University. “This is a virtual tsunami that’s about to happen and we want the state of Utah to be on the cutting edge of all of this research.”
The FAA is expected to decide in December which of the 26 bidders in 24 states will host the test sites and Utah has been pushing the state as a prime spot because of its wide-open spaces, its long-standing aerospace industry and its diverse terrain.
A map provided by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) shows 1,200 square miles in four areas that the state is pitching for the test sites: a small circle near ATK’s Clearfield facility and areas near Green River, Delta and Milford.
If Utah wins the FAA’s nod, it could eventually add some 23,000 jobs, a $23 billion bump to the state’s economy and help stamp the area as a center of aerospace technology, according to the governor’s office.
“We have a very long, rich legacy in aerospace itself,” says Marshall Wright, director of the GOED’s business development, aerospace and defense section. “We’ve been involved in unmanned systems for quite a long time.”
Becoming an FAA test site would add to that, but the state has steep competition, including bids from Alaska to Florida and New York to California.
To stand out, the state employed a key figure to help attract the FAA’s attention at a recent conference: a snow yeti.
At the gathering in Washington this month for unmanned aerial systems — the preferred name over the common nickname of “drones” — the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance borrowed the inflatable Ski Utah yeti and enlisted the mythical creature to hold an unmanned plane.
“That was a great draw for us,” says Wright. “It got people to come to our booth and hear our story.”
Also part of the sales pitch: That Utah isn’t likely to pass legislation limiting the use of unmanned aerial systems, a move started in some of the competing states. A GOED pamphlet notes that of the 24 states trying for the FAA sites, 15 of them have pending legislation to curb use of unmanned planes.
Utah has the “complete and unified” support of its state executive and legislative branches and its federal representatives, the handout notes.
If the FAA lands a test site in Utah, the state would have six months to get the program up and running with the help of universities and private industry.
Dornan, the UVU dean, says initially, the unmanned planes could be used for surveying or agricultural needs and jobs that could be dangerous for living pilots to do. Later on, bigger planes could be used for more advanced uses.
“We want to keep the momentum going and take it to a new level,” says Dornan.