Utah angling for drone test site

Mar 31 2013 - 10:57pm

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A drone known as the Global Hawk is unveiled at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in this 2009 file photo. The Federal Aviation Administration is looking for six sites to test drones, and Utah officials hope the state will be selected for one of them. (Associated Press file photo)
A drone known as the Global Hawk is unveiled at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in this 2009 file photo. The Federal Aviation Administration is looking for six sites to test drones, and Utah officials hope the state will be selected for one of them. (Associated Press file photo)

OGDEN -- Unmanned aircraft, in addition to offering safety for Air Force pilots, may be dropping hundreds of millions of dollars from the sky to bolster Utah's economy.

The competition is on among 50 organizations in 37 states to be one of six homes to an unmanned-aircraft, or drone, testing site.

The competition stems from a Congressional mandate in February 2012 for the FAA to bring unmanned aircraft into operational airspace and have those aerial vehicles be able to safely interact with aircraft manned by pilots. The goal of the site-selection program is to develop technology and protocols that move the concept forward.

Officials with the Governor's Office of Economic Development are poised to pitch Utah as one of those locations.

GOED officials would not reveal the location they have in mind so as not to tip off competitors, but they gave assurances that all people and property would be safe.

"Obviously, we are going to use a crawl-walk-run type of process to make certain people and property are all safe," said Marshall Wright, director of business development for the GOED aerospace and defense cluster.

All data has to be submitted to the FAA by May 6.

The final decision on the test sites is to be made by the Federal Aviation Administration by Dec. 31, Wright said.

What the FAA is looking for is a test bed for unmanned systems in natural airspace, and the ability to bring the unmanned aircraft into the normalcy of that environment, Wright said.

After the information is submitted, but before a decision is reached, congressional and state leaders, local companies and institutions of higher learning in the state can make known to the FAA why Utah should be selected as one of the six sites, Wright said.

Initially, the challenge is to demonstrate that the state's businesses and schools can provide the type of technology that will be required, Wright said.

But the spin-off from the technology could be expanded to include unmanned ground vehicles, similar to the technology used in a new Mercedes Benz vehicle, which provides a steering system option that protects drowsy drivers from leaving the road.

"It drops money from the sky," Wright said of those who possess such technology. He said aerial technology could be used in such instances as combating wildland fires, measuring high-mountain snow pack or making certain that water and insecticides are not being wasted on crops.

"When we win this," he said, "it will be like having a fishing license for economic development."

Those states selected as test beds will not only draw industry there, Wright said, but in Utah's case, it will grow industry that is already here.

"We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development for the state of Utah from now to 2025, or 1,000 jobs," Wright said.

"These systems will replace things or tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous for man," he said of the potential the technology holds.

Having a testing site in Utah makes sense, because the state is already home to Hill Air Force Base, the Utah Test and Training Range and a labor force skilled in the technology needed to operate the drones, said state Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

"The projection is that there is going to be more unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft," Adams said. To be part of that change, the state must pursue this significant opportunity.

"I hope we do everything we can to be successful," he said.

The manufacturing and operation of drone aircraft is increasing, Adams said, because there is no loss of life when one of the aircraft is lost. He said having an unmanned aircraft also removes the human element, the physical limitations involved in flight maneuvers.

"We'll go after it," Adams said, pledging support to state officials serving as the point on the effort.

Wright said any attempt to influence the decision and help Utah's effort, including the support of state and Congressional leaders, is welcome.

The key will be moving from drones to intelligent machines, where the state's legacy, from Weber State University to area high schools with courses in robotics, can collaborate with commercial business in developing a robot to perform different tasks, Wright said.

"With the legacy we have here, Hill Air Force Base, Dugway, all the capabilities we have been able to bring here, I think that is a plus," Wright said.

This is not about an aerial vehicle only, he said, but future interaction with smart machines.

"The only issue right now is that we have to get the FAA convinced we can manage the system," Wright said.

Michael Sullivan, director of communications with the GOED office, said:

"This does not eliminate jobs, because these machines have to interact with the human being. We are making people more efficient. This is not a job killer, but a job creator."

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