What is ‘advanced air mobility,’ and why is the Utah Legislature looking to regulate it?

Drones and air taxis and geofences, oh my. The sky is going to get more crowded.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jada Connor checks a Zipline drone before a flight at the company's distribution center in South Jordan on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. The Utah Legislature is revisiting regulations on drones as the sky grows more crowded with air deliveries.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Where is it legal to have a vertiport?

Can a drone drop a pizza at 2 in the morning?

Can property owners deny access to the air above their land?

Welcome to the world of “advanced air mobility.” The notion of people and goods gliding across low altitudes is no longer future fantasy. Drone deliveries have already launched in Utah, and the FAA is expected to start certifying air taxis by 2024.

The Utah Legislature has worked for years to keep pace with emerging drone technology through various regulations, and last year formed a study group to look at updating regulatory laws. The discussions led Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, to introduce SB24 (Advanced Air Mobility Amendments).

“We’re a little bit behind the curve based upon the study,” said Harper at a November meeting of the Transportation Interim Committee, which voted to send the bill to the full legislature. The Utah Senate has already passed the bill this session, and it has been sent to the House.

Harper emphasized that the bill is more of a framework for regulation, as processes for the nascent industry are still developing. Even the Federal Aviation Administration is still working on the federal regulatory environment.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Legislature is tackling regulations on drones and their emerging technology. The private firm Zipline demonstrated its package delivery process in South Jordan in October.

Driven largely by improvements in lightweight battery technology, low-flying electric aircraft – both manned and unmanned – are poised to capture a significant piece of the delivery and transportation markets. In many cases, they are already cost-competitive with ground-based options.

“People don’t realize how big the sky really is,” said Jared Esselman, the former director of the Utah Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division who led the legislative study committee.

In his UDOT role, Esselman became a leading expert on advanced air mobility, including facilitating the launch of two drone delivery systems in Utah. Zipline is now delivering prescription and over-the-counter medicine to Intermountain Healthcare customers in South Jordan, and Walmart and DroneUp have begun drone deliveries in Herriman and Lindon.

Esselman left his state job late last year to sign on with a consulting firm to advise governments on their air mobility regulations.

“You could put 30,000 drones in the sky, and they wouldn’t be hitting each other,” he said.

To do that, it will take more than human air traffic controllers working in towers. Near-ground air traffic will be managed by tracking software, he said.

Harper’s colleagues in the Utah Legislature had practical concerns when it was presented in November. Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, wondered if the bill’s language giving the state supremacy over local jurisdictions would prevent cities from enforcing zoning regulations at drone operations and vertiports. Harper said that wasn’t the intent.

And Sen. David Buxton, R-Roy, asked if people were going to hear drones delivering pizzas in the middle of the night.

Esselman said noise is generally not an issue for drone deliveries. “Unless you’re receiving the delivery, you shouldn’t notice it.”

There likely will be considerable debate around geofencing, the technology that can control where drones and air taxis can operate for safety or other reasons.

Zipline has been delivering prescription and over-the-counter products to Intermountain Healthcare customers since September. South Jordan Police Chief Jeff Carr said there have been no complaints or issues for his department related to drone deliveries.

(Walmart) An example of a drone delivery in Farmington, Ark.

Utah is one of seven states where Walmart is trying out drone deliveries. Two of the 36 Walmarts with a drone-delivery option are in Lindon and Herriman. Across the 36 stores, there were only 6,000 deliveries in 2022, a number that is sure to grow this year.

Utah is also working on building an advanced air mobility industry in the state. Logan-based Electric Power Systems, which has been making batteries for aviation for years, recently announced that it was building a new factory and hiring up to 3,100 employees to build aviation batteries. The company is also building a prototype air taxi.

And Salt Lake City-based Altaport is marketing a “vertiport automation system” to manage operations at vertiports, which are small heliports for drones.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.