Unmanned aerial vehicle industry stalls in Utah



For those in the industry, “drone” is a cuss word.

For many, the word “drone” evokes connotations of a missile strike controlled by an operator half a world away, or a surveillance tool used for domestic spying.

“The word drone is so negative, it implies invasion of privacy and that isn’t how we use it,” said Larry Lewis, public information officer for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

Instead, the preferred term is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Even adding aerial can be limiting to the capabilities that many in the industry believe can be accomplished, from agriculture, to search and rescue, to videography.

The machines range in size from small radio-controlled quadricopter to a 27-foot MQ-1 Predator.

Developing the machines and software falls in line with economic mission of the state, said Marshall Wright, director of business development for Aerospace Defense Industry Cluster.

“That is a very key economic impact to the state,” Wright said. “We see this as the leading edge of aerospace industry at this point.”

However, much of the development and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles are stalled because of economic and legal reasons.

Various companies in Utah are manufacturing components for the devices, while area universities are experimenting with capabilities.

A device can be used for tracking agriculture, water measurement, snow melt, livestock and fish migration.

The Utah Highway Patrol previously used the devices to take photos of fatal and severe car accidents.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles are anything but drones,” Wright said. “They are extremely smart.”

They do all of the dumb, dirty and dangerous work, Wright said.

One developer of unmanned aerial vehicles is Leptron, which got its start in a building at the Ogden airport.

Leptron, which is now based in Golden, Colo., makes and maintains diminutive radio-controlled helicopters.

In the past, the UHP  and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food have used Leptron machines.

Since relocating to Colorado, the company maintains a small shop in Utah for minor repairs and equipment testing.

Leptron Utah Division Manager Steve Wilson said Utah makes a good testing ground for the machines.

He said the state has the right mix of topography and environments, including high elevations and desert conditions to push devices to their limits.

The state also has a variety of military testing grounds to allow legal operation of the devices.

The law is one of the factors holding the unmanned aerial industry back. It is not legal to fly a drone in Utah for commercial purposes.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration only allows the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Usage in Utah is limited to old radio-controlled aircraft rules, which require the devices to remain within line of sight and below a certain elevation.

“You can operate those for fun and enjoyment that is what the FAA says,” Wright said. “With the availability of the systems, people want to fly them around for more than their own enjoyment.”

If allowed to be used, Wright figures the machines can create at least 100,000 jobs and billions of dollars in the United State by 2025, along with millions in taxes in Utah alone.

“Even though we weren’t selected as a site by the FAA, we are still viable,” Wright said. “We are looking for a number of opportunities that will present themselves.”

Others use development of unmanned aerial vehicles as a means to an end.

The juniors and seniors in Weber State University’s Utah Center for Applied Innovation and Design department build a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles from the ground up under a mandate by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Everything but the motor and propeller, said UCAID Assistant Director Jeff Jackson, because they are so cheap to buy.

Using a thin material, the students in UCAID can turn a large gray drone into a Taliban truck skimming across the desert landscape.

A private company commissioned the Weber State department to build the unmanned aerial vehicle as target practice for jet pilots.

Other devices developed in the UCAID shop, which is tucked into an industrial park in Farmington, is a small plane with collapsible wings and propeller, nicknamed Minion, used by Utah State University’s water research lab, through their AggieAir program.

Through the development of the unmanned aerial systems, the students learn about design, software programming, injection molding and composites – all skills the students can apply to other careers when they leave the university.

Because of the current FAA rules, the students will probably not be applying their learned skills to the unmanned aerial systems industry in Utah.

“It surely restricts the market, there is a lot less you can do, it has to be for hobbiest use. It make it so it is not a viable market just yet,” Jackson said. “The barrier is the legal framework. As soon as there is coherent legal framework, we can use it for a lot of stuff.”

Yet initial attempts by some state agencies to use the devices did not turn out as expected.

Lewis said the agriculture department used an unmanned aerial vehicle to help try to determine what effect cattle grazing have on the environment.

“We thought it could speed up some work and help us collect data quickly and economically,” Lewis said. “But we found the resolution of the photograph slowed down the whole process.”

The resolution of the pictures were such a problem, the agriculture department found it just as productive to add the camera to a pole.

That, coupled with questions from the FAA, the agriculture department grounded the use of unmanned aerial vehicles until further notice.

“At this point, we don’t have plans to use it in the future,” Lewis said.

Sgt. Todd Royce said the Utah Highway Patrol also ceased its use of its drones.

About four to five years ago, Royce said UHP used an unmanned aerial vehicle to photograph serious car accidents, including fatalities.

“It ended up not being as cost effective as we originally hoped,” Royce said.

While the photographs worked, Royce said UHP found it cheaper to use GPS-enabled devices.

Royce believes UHP is no longer in possession of the drones.

“In the future, there may be a significant need,” Royce said, “but we currently do not have one.”

While underground aerial vehicles may be grounded, work continues to figure out the capabilities.

Many in the governor’s office see the possibilities as limitless.

“It is getting refined constantly by hobbiests and the military,” Jackson said. “It’s only a matter of time before the rest of American can get involved. You are basically opening up a whole world of opportunities that are only available to an airplane or helicopter.”

As the technology improves, maybe packages will be delivered and farmers will track moisture levels in their corn fields using drones. And all of the components and programming will be developed in the Beehive State.

“The future for unmanned systems is very bright,” Wright said, “but we still feel the FAA has a number of issues to get over before we can get involved.”