State regulators say that even though the Federal Aviation Administration has punted the job of regulating unmanned drones to state and local governments, they believe they can have a framework in place to maintain safety ahead of a drone invasion that appears to be just over the horizon.

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Following a Wednesday presentation to the Utah Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee, Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said Utah and the rest of the world is on the cusp of an innovation-fueled transportation revolution.

“We have this new era, this new industry of urban air mobility,” Robertson told the Deseret News. “The technology is finally in place where we can put goods and services in the air.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News The TrueView radar system is displayed on a drone at Fortem Technologies Inc. in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
The TrueView radar system is displayed on a drone at Fortem Technologies Inc. in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.

“Commute times continue to increase and, from a legislative point of view, we have this massive need for transportation. The skies are almost empty and, if we could add this as another facet of multi-modal transportation, it could really ease the (congestion) on roads.”

Robertson also underscored the role the FAA has played in managing manned commercial and general aviation aircraft will likely not transfer to the lower-altitude world of unmanned drones.

“The FAA … has been in place for decades, monitoring airspace, taking care of all the regulation and all the enforcement,” Robertson said. “In recent testimony at the congressional level, (they) were asked very directly, ‘If you want to control this, do you have the resources and how are you going to do it?'”

“They basically said, ‘We don’t have the resources and we can’t do it.'”

Robertson said he believes the regulatory systems for drones will likely reflect how roadways have traditionally been managed with the federal government overseeing interstate highways, states overseeing state highways and local governments managing local roads.

“We will have city, county, state and federal (drone) regulations,” Robertson said. “And, I really think the federal role for urban air mobility will be not so substantial.”

An FAA spokesman declined a request from the Deseret News for comment, citing the agency’s policy of not offering comment on pending legislation. The agency did provide a 2015 fact sheet that included a statement indicating the FAA has jurisdiction over regulating “unmanned aircraft systems” but that states were also moving forward with their own legislation.

“Unmanned aircraft systems are aircraft subject to regulation by the FAA to ensure safety of flight, and safety of people and property on the ground,” the fact sheet reads. “States and local jurisdictions are increasingly exploring regulation of UAS or proceeding to enact legislation relating to UAS operations.”

With package delivery drones already plying the airways in some cities, and manned drones expected in the skies with pilots by 2021, and without pilots by 2023, Utah is not waiting to move forward with assembling a system to manage low-altitude airspace.

Ravell Call, Deseret News Drones fly in Memory Grove during a new pilot experience sponsored by DJI in Salt Lake City, Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Ravell Call, Deseret News
Drones fly in Memory Grove during a new pilot experience sponsored by DJI in Salt Lake City, Thursday, May 19, 2016.

Even with the potential for droves of drones — some laden with packages and others with humans — poised to be overhead in just five years, Jared Esselman, director of aeronautics for the Utah Department of Transportation, told the Deseret News the state will be ready to manage it.

“I believe if we start working on it now, we can keep up with this,” Esselman said. “We have the critical pieces of infrastructure, all we have to do is put them together … and coordinate them. We have everything we need.”

Esselman explained the approach to managing drone airspace will be focused on both airborne and ground safety issues and will borrow heavily from how the FAA regulates the higher altitudes occupied by manned aircraft.

The four components for drone systems will include:

  • ADS-B: Automatic Dependence Surveillance-Broadcast positioning system that utilizes satellites and navigation data to determine location of a drone and broadcast it to other aircraft and ground stations.
  • GPS: Global Positioning System, another satellite-dependent location system.
  • Advanced Wireless Platform: Provides communication links between aircraft and ground stations.
  • Mini-radar Tracking System: Miniaturized radar that can be used both on drones and on the ground to track and locate other vehicles in the air.

Esselmen said the state has assembled numerous private sector partners to assist in the work, including Airbus, which is developing both manned an unmanned drone aircraft prototypes, and Fortem Technologies, a Pleasant Grove-based tech company that’s innovated a micro radar system.

Utah’s low-altitude drone airspace, according to Esselman, will be divided into corridors, with a possible layering to designate 0-400 feet for recreational and light-duty drone flight; 400-800 feet for package delivery drones; and 800-1,200 feet for air taxis (people transport).

While Robertson said it is still too early to assess what it might cost to create a new regulatory framework for drones, he does believe there is great commercial potential for the emerging technology.

“We can attract significant new business,” Robertson said. “We have Airbus already attending some of our coordinating meetings, … a company that doesn’t have a presence in Utah, except for its planes taking off and landing. I think we’ll have a lot of associated economic development.”

In a May press release announcing an FAA program aimed at exploring ways to integrate unmanned aircraft systems, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said the drone industry was positioned to have expansive economic impacts.

“In less than a decade, the potential economic benefit of integrating UAS in the nation’s airspace is estimated at $82 billion and could create 100,000 jobs,” Chao said.

A hard timeline for working out Utah’s drone regulations is still to be determined, but UDOT spokesman John Gleason said the effort is geared to be in place quickly enough to avoid impeding implementation of drone aircraft.

“The goal of the Urban Air Mobility team is to develop a plan, and they are in the early stages of identifying specific actions as part of that effort,” Gleason said in a statement. “Although we are still working out the specifics, we do know that our highest priorities are to put in place the necessary infrastructure and policies that will enable advancement in this area.”