By the end of December the Federal Aviation Administration will have designated six sites within the United States for the testing of commercial and civil unmanned aerial systems (drones) and Utah has significant interest in hosting at least one of those sites.
“Everyone recognizes that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have great potential for civil and commercial applications,” says Marshall Wright, aerospace and defense cluster director in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “This is a big deal. If you want to know where aerospace is going in the next 20 years, this is the place to look. This is where all of the new technology is being applied. Unmanned aerial systems are the cutting edge of aerospace technology right now and the key to growing our aerospace industry here in Utah.”
Because civil and commercial uses for UAS are set to grow exponentially, industry leaders have requested and Congress has mandated that the FAA select test sites to help facilitate the safe integration of UAS into national airspace by 2015. Wright says the FAA plans to establish test sites with diverse geological and meteorological characteristics where the UAS can be tested and evaluated without interfering with civil and commercial aviation “so they don’t hurt anybody.”
Utah has proposed four sites within the state that fit the characteristics of what the FAA wants. Those sites are near Promontory, Green River, Delta and Milford. Utah is competing with 24 other states that also see a windfall in having a UAS test site; however, three of those states have passed anti-UAS legislation and 15 of the states have anti-UAS legislation pending.
The Beehive State offers numerous advantages that make it a prime location for UAS R&D, manufacturing and testing. As Wright notes, Utah is one of the few states with unified executive and legislative support for UAS testing. What’s more, Utah has over 1,200 square miles of dedicated airspace that could be used for UAS testing. Although largely for military purposes, Utah is already home to significant UAS testing. In 2009, Dugway Proving Ground in the west desert was chosen as the location to integrate systems and conduct testing for the Army’s Hunter, Shadow and Sky Warrior Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
The state’s unique high desert setting, vast open spaces and business-friendly environment already beckon to UAS companies. Many industry leaders have a presence here. Upwards of 15 Utah companies and the Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory employ more than 2,000 Utahns in UAS-related work. L3 Communications is the state’s largest UAS-related employer. With Utah’s mature aerospace sector, high concentration of companies that produce UAS electronic subsystems, control systems and advanced composite systems, along with a higher education system that is producing the skilled labor, Utah certainly has the infrastructure and supply chain necessary to support the rapidly expanding UAS industry.
Based upon EDCUtah research, having a FAA designated UAS test range in Utah could add as many as 23,000 direct and indirect jobs over the coming decades with hundreds of millions in new state tax revenue. These estimates are based on the current growth of the UAS industry in Utah, projections of new growth that a UAS test range might bring to the state, plus the multiplier effect to incorporate indirect employment.
“What we are looking to do,” says Wright, “is grow our aerospace industry by taking the technology used for military UAS and turn that into civil and commercial applications.” Some of the potential applications for UAS include precision agriculture, monitoring and fighting forest fires, search-and-rescue efforts, surveying infrastructure such as dams, bridges, pipelines and power lines to search for damage, and numerous other applications where situations may be too dangerous for manned flights.
EDCUtah President and CEO Jeff Edwards says if the FAA selects a Utah location as a test site it will help establish the state as a viable national hub for UAS and result in additional high-end job growth for the state’s aerospace industry, increased and enhanced research opportunities for higher education, and sustained economic impact.
“All of those jobs we talk about will come from the development of UAS for civil and commercial uses. An FAA test range in Utah will help our existing companies expand and attract new companies here, because Utah will be at the epicenter of where they can build, evaluate and test their systems,” he explains.
Discussions around the FAA’s plans for the six test sites took center stage earlier this month at the annual gathering of the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International (AUVSI) in Washington D.C. EDCUtah and GOED have been sponsoring and exhibiting at AUVSI for about six years and took a Utah delegation to AUVSI this month. Wright says AUVSI is the key advocacy group behind the UAS industry, which includes aerial, ground and maritime unmanned systems and other robotics.
“AUVSI is to the unmanned systems and robotics industry what the Outdoor Retailer shows are to the outdoor industry,” he adds. “With more than 8,000 attendees and more than 550 exhibitors from more than 40 countries, AUVSI is a major event.”
Edwards says that because of Utah’s position as a leader in UAS, the state received significant media attention from organizations such as Politico,National Defense Magazine and Air Force Times. “We received some great press coverage,” he adds. “People kept asking, why are you here and why are all these states here? We were certainly happy to tell our story.”
Participants in the Utah pavilion with GOED and EDCUtah included Marshall Radio Telemetry, Utah Valley University, the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance, Dugway Proving Ground and Hill Air Force Base. About 10 other Utah companies had their own booths at AUVSI. They included Autonomous Solutions Inc., IMSAR, Exelis, Kairos Autonomi, L3 Communications, Moog Inc., Parker Aerospace, Parvus Corporation, SAIC, Sierra Nevada Corp. and the Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory.
While the thought of unmanned drones flying in Utah’s airspace may send up red flags for some citizens, Wright says the State of Utah recognizes the need to balance privacy with the potential benefits unmanned aerial systems can bring to society. “That’s why Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah Legislature, academia and industry are collaborating to promote and support the development of UAS technology for commercial and public services,” he notes.
Gov. Herbert has appointed a Utah Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site Advisory Board, to be chaired by Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell and consisting of concerned citizens and industry leaders, to educate key constituencies about UAS and to ensure that Utah’s UAS Test Site management is committed to providing an environment for academia, industry and government to evaluate, test, and integrate these concepts and technologies in a responsible manner while recognizing the public’s concerns for privacy and safety.