Utah’s empty parking lots could see future drone, air taxi takeoffs

A state “advanced air mobility” study says the lots could become “vertiports” for drones and air taxis.

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Air taxis and drones may be coming to an empty parking lot near you.

The Utah Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division has issued its Legislature-requested report on “advanced air mobility,” which gives a rough outline for the rollout of “vertiports” across the state.

“Vertiports” are vertical take-off and landing facilities. The report presents data from the Wasatch Front Regional Council on underutilized parking lots, including those at large shopping centers that could be repurposed for vertiports “simply by rearranging paint and lighting.”

“Thus, communities without airports could participate and benefit from advanced air mobility,” the report states.

Aerial drones have been commercially available for years and are used for a variety of business and recreational purposes, but there are only a couple of companies and locations where Utahns can get goods delivered via drone.

Air taxis are essentially flying cars, able to carry a few people and vertically take off from or land on a small patch of ground. There are no air taxis operating in the U.S. yet, and the soonest it could happen nationally looks like about 2025. Several companies are developing small, electric-powered air taxis called “electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing” (eVTOL) aircraft.

Matt Maass, director of the aeronautics division, said Utah has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration and others to plan for a coming wave of air taxis, but here, he thinks it’s at least five years away. “It’s a possibility by 2028. It’s probably going to be closer to 2030 before we see widespread use.”

In the meantime, Maass said his office has been working with the FAA to set up sites where manufacturers could test their machines. “There’s a hole in the Mountain West area where there’s really not a lot of test areas,” adding that it could include both mountain and desert test sites.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Zipline drone drops a package during a demonstration in South Jordan on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. The Utah Department of Transportation has issued its report on managing drones and air taxis across the state.

‘Isn’t just for the rich’

It’s an open question what an air taxi flight might cost. The CEO of one company, Archer Aviation, told the Los Angeles Times that it was aiming for around $50 for a trip from Santa Monica to downtown L.A., which is about 15 miles.

Maass said the air taxi startups are aiming for mass deployment. “The manufacturers say they want to build on a scale that isn’t just for the rich. They want it so that anybody can participate in this.”

In July, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its final rule for “powered lift,” and it anticipates both piloted and self-flying aircraft that rise straight up, then fly fast. They’re also designed to fly in some inclement weather, although their lighter weight makes them more vulnerable than a traditional helicopter in stormy conditions.

It’s also unclear what altitude they’ll fly at. Maass said the FAA controls everything off the ground, and it hasn’t yet defined whether air taxis will stay under the 400-foot level like drones or have a higher level. He did say they should be able to fly over mountains to serve ski resorts.

One obvious place for an air taxi vertiport is Salt Lake City International Airport, where passengers can transfer to bigger aircraft for longer flights.

Delta Air Lines, which operates about three-quarters of the passenger flights in and out of Salt Lake City International Airport, recently announced that it is building vertiports at Los Angeles International Airport and at John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia in New York. Last year, Delta announced a $60 million investment and partnership with Joby Aviation, which has built a prototype air taxi that is being tested at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Nancy Volmer, director of communications and marketing for SLC International, said airport officials are looking at options, but no specific location has been chosen. She also said they have to beef up the airport’s electrical grid. “Fast charging electrical requirements for each eVTOL can be between 1-2 megawatts. That’s roughly the same amount of power needed for 250-500 homes,” she said.

Challenges and benefits

Maass said there may be some places where the aircraft land and take off without charging, but most will require a lot more power than the average parking lot can access. The state has a separate group working on plans for a modern electrical grid that can handle all the electrification of ground transportation as well as aviation.

The UDOT report noted several benefits of developing an air taxi system, including a faster connection between rural areas and population centers. Joby says its prototypes can fly up to 200 mph and travel 150 miles on a single charge.

The report also noted that the electric aircraft will take vehicles off the road, improving air quality, and the jobs generated will be high-paying, skilled work. But it noted potential downsides, too, including safety and privacy concerns about the low-flying vehicles, impacts on local or migrating animals and the possibility of terrorism.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

One of the biggest challenges is developing an automated air traffic control system for drones and air taxis. The volume of vehicles and flights will be more than FAA air traffic controllers can currently handle, so traffic will have to be managed by computers, the study said.

The report had specific recommendations for the Legislature, including requiring municipalities to add “drone package delivery” and “aerial taxi operations” to conditional use permits, and crafting zoning language for potential take-off and landing sites.

It did not establish the number of vertiports needed statewide, but noted Salt Lake City alone could need as many as eight of them.

The report also called on the Legislature to better define “three-dimensional property rights,” since drones and air taxis operate much closer to the ground than traditional aircraft. Rolling out an integrated transportation system that includes both air and ground movement could take 30 years, which the report outlines in four phases.

Maass and Damron are working on a follow-up report also requested by the Legislature that will offer more detail. Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, who sponsored the study bills, has opened another bill file for the 2024 session, but he said in an email that he expects a bigger bill in the 2025 session after the next study is completed.

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