SALT LAKE CITY — Utah may one day be home to an airborne version of the I-15 freeway thanks to technology being developed right here in the Beehive State.
Imagine tooling around the skies in vehicles that are human-guided or autonomous, much in the same way that we move about in our motorized four- and two-wheeled vehicles today. That time is approaching faster than some may realize.
Ultra-cool technology was on full display at Utah's Capitol as part of 2019 Aerospace Day on the Hill. Various companies and organizations steeped in the industry participated in an event aimed at showing state lawmakers the economic importance of their sector and the innovations currently in development.
Among the innovations of interest was aerial transportation, which could change the way people move about in their daily lives, explained UDOT Director of Aeronautics Jared Esselman. Similar to the transition to motorized horseless carriages that are in use today, the state is on the brink of the next major personal transportation advancement, he said.
"We are inventing this as we go along. Nobody has ever done this before," he said. "Everybody's dreamed about it and it's very sci-fi, but we have the technology."
UDOT already has the pieces in place, he said. "We've just got to put that puzzle together."
Esselman said his agency is looking to the example of the nation's "high altitude" regulators — the Federal Aviation Administration — as well as ground transit regulators, to figure out "middle ground" standards for low-altitude (less than a mile high) aviation.
He said the aeronautics industry is anticipating integration of low aviation by 2023.
"That's not that long from now," he said. "(Right now) there is package delivery happening. The next logical step is, 'Now we're riding (in the air) to work.'"
While some might worry about the potential hazards of everyday air transit compared to traditional motorized vehicles, he channeled his inner "son of Krypton" to make a point about safety.
"As the famous Superman line goes, 'Flying in the safest way to travel,'" Esselman said.
Meanwhile, two nearby northern Utah counties are hoping to become the test range for the next level of daily local commuter and business transit.
"The overall mission would be to have what the Jetsons promised us decades ago come to fruition," said Shawn Milne, Tooele County Commissioner and Deseret Unmanned Aerial Systems board chairman. "It'll help alleviate (congestion) on our surface streets as our population grows and it'll help expedite small package delivery, along with a lot of other things that we don't even yet realize it can change."
Deseret Unmanned Aerial Systems is a nonprofit corporation created jointly by Tooele and Box Elder counties in partnership with Ogden. The organization's mission is to facilitate rural economic development through the advancement of unmanned aerial systems and to elevate Utah's presence in the drone industry. The organization also supports the governor's 25,000 Jobs Initiative for Utah's 25 rural counties, said Box Elder Economic Development Director Mitch Zundel.
Milne said future innovations in transportation development will include the state transportation department's aeronautics division, which will eventually regulate above-ground day-to-day travel the same way the agency monitors roadways today. Tooele and Box Elder counties are working with UDOT to develop closed testing ranges similar to the way test track facilities allow for vehicle practice and operation to mimic real-life driving situations.
"We have this test site that is much like the former Utah Motorsports campus. It's a closed track where you test (the unmanned aerial technology) to make sure it's not falling out of the sky, the jets work when the pilot says, '(turn) right,' it goes right," Milne explained. "There are some human (operated) elements, but it's largely (artificial intelligence)."
He said the technology for aerial flight could likely be operational in the not-so-distant future. Noting that the iPhone was first introduced in 2007 and today it has become ubiquitous to many people's everyday lives, so, too, will the innovation of aerial transportation.
Utah's aerospace and defense industry account for more than 944 organizations and 31,390 jobs, according to the Governor's Office of Economic Development. The state's core aerospace and defense companies include design, composite manufacturing, software and control systems, sophisticated testing, as well as repair and maintenance, said GOED Executive Director Val Hale.
Among the companies on hand for the Monday event were Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Albany Engineered Composites, ElectraFly, Hill Air Force Base and Fortem Technologies.
Based in Pleasant Grove, Fortem Technologies builds airspace awareness systems for commercial and military applications that allow users to monitor airspace a mile into the sky, explained CEO Timothy Bean.
The company has developed a system that uses small sensors equipped with radar that can identify movement of virtually any airborne machine or animal within a prescribed zone, he said.3 comments on this story
"You can definitely detect birds versus drones versus air taxis versus parachutists," he said. "You have a good understanding of what's happening in the airspace 24-7, day and night, because radar works well even at night and through clouds."
He said implementing such technology can be helpful in numerous applications including low altitude traffic monitoring and public safety.
"(This can help) finding people who are lost, helping with traffic situations or big events — whether it's the Olympics or a parade," he said. "Making sure our society remains safe. These kinds of automation in the airspace really makes a difference."