Utah Provides Blueprint of How AAM Operations Might Look at State Level

The Utah Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division released a report on how drones, electric air taxis, and other new aircraft may fit into the state’s skies.

Utah AAM drone delivery Zipline

Zipline drones similar to this one already deliver medical supplies in Utah with partner Intermountain Healthcare. [Courtesy: Zipline]

A few months after the FAA released its Innovate28 plan for scaled advanced air mobility (AAM) operations by 2028, Utah officials have revealed their own plan to integrate delivery drones, electric air taxis, vertiports, and more into the state’s airspace.

At the request of the state legislature, the Utah AAM Working Group, part of the Utah Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division, this week released a legislative report and study on the implementation of AAM services in regions such as the Salt Lake City metro area.

The Utah AAM Infrastructure and Regulatory Study is a 58-page framework—similar to the FAA’s Innovate28 and its previously released AAM blueprint—that identifies the benefits, limitations, assets, timelines, and funding mechanisms associated with the state’s adoption of these emerging services. It does not establish any new rules or regulations but simply provides guidance.

The Utah Legislature also called on researchers to review state laws and identify any changes that could be made to speed the development of the state’s AAM operations. But according to the report, Utah already has plenty of potential to support technologies like drones and air taxis.

“Through leadership foresight, from the legislature to state agencies, Utah has positioned itself to embrace AAM,” the report reads. “The state already has significant assets in place that could be utilized in early implementation of advanced air mobility.”

Researchers identified several positive effects AAM could have on the state, the two biggest being a reduction in carbon emissions—since many drones and air taxi designs are electric—and “clear and compelling” economic benefits.

The report suggests that AAM services would create the potential for thousands of high-paying jobs in vehicle manufacturing, maintenance, and vertiport operations. For example, Zipline—which operates drone delivery in Utah through a partnership with Intermountain Healthcare—hires FAA-certificated drone pilots directly out of high school and helps them to pay for college. Utah is also one of seven states where Walmart and delivery partner DroneUp are flying.

Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) manufacturers could bring further employment opportunities. Two of the U.S.’s largest, Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation, have begun building production plants in Georgia and Ohio, respectively, far from their California headquarters. Both firms expect to produce hundreds of vehicles and thousands of lucrative jobs.

On the other hand, the biggest limitations of AAM may be safety and privacy concerns from Utah residents and impacts on local or migrating animals, according to the report.

Researchers believe that Utah has plenty of readily available assets that could serve the AAM industry with some slight modifications. They note, for example, that the Aeronautics Division is already assisting airports with electrification and vertiport installation. 

The report considers airports, unsurprisingly, to be “prime” locations for AAM operations. It lists South Valley Regional Airport (U42), Skypark Airport (KBTF), and Spanish Fork Airport (KSPK) as potential urban air mobility hubs, adding that local or rural airports could be turned into regional air mobility hubs or drone delivery service centers.

Based on data from the Wasatch Front Regional Council, the report also identifies potential sites for vertiports in communities without airports: underutilized parking garages. Shopping center parking lots, for example, could be transformed into landing pads by rearranging paint and lighting.

Utah’s “excellent” statewide fiber-optic and cellular network coverage should allow drones to easily broadcast data and communicate with remote pilots when flying beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS)—an FAA requirement.

The state’s electric grid, meanwhile, produces around 37,000 MWh of electricity per year to charge eVTOL or other electric aircraft. Utah relies on a shared grid system, which allows it to draw some additional power as demand increases. But its electric substations may require upgrades to support an influx of AAM aircraft. And at first, the state may need to build vertiports selectively based on the capacity of local facilities.

The Roadmap

The report examines what AAM operations in Utah may look like in various phases, zooming in to the next two to three years and zooming out decades from now.

“Everything does not have to be in place on day one,” the report reads. “The prudent approach is to follow a phased implementation plan that allows government and markets to grow one step at a time and adjust as appropriate to shifting market demands.”

Researchers broke down the plan into four segments based on “current industry projections.” The initial phase, which covers the next two to three years, will focus mainly on community outreach and public engagement. It will also involve the initial buildout of infrastructure, such as a statewide unmanned traffic management (UTM) system.

A UTM—and an Aerial Traffic Operations Center for the personnel managing it—is one of the “hard” infrastructure components Utah will need to add to its AAM ecosystem. Its creation, along with the improvement of cellular and internet broadcast receivers, will be one of the more challenging tasks the state faces.

In addition, Utah will require “soft” infrastructure improvements: more personnel, man hours, and expertise to name a few. The designing of aerial corridors, adaptation of land-use planning, and development of AAM policies are also on the agenda.

Phase two of the plan, expected to last three to five years, is primarily aimed at expanding UTM capacity and building the initial vertiport sites, with continued local outreach and engagement. Matt Maass, director of Utah’s aeronautics division, told the Salt Lake Tribune that 2028—which would fall under this stage—could mark the entry of AAM services such as electric air taxis.

The third stage is planned to last seven to 15 years. By this point, Utah hopes to have comprehensive UTM services, including a fully operational Aerial Traffic Operations Center. Vertiport infrastructure and operations should be at a “commercially viable” level, providing capacity for daily commutes.

The final phase, which could stretch from anywhere between 15 and 30 years, will tie everything together. By then, the state should have a fully integrated electric- and hydrogen-hybrid aviation and ground transportation system. This network would connect urban and rural communities statewide, the report predicts.

To get there—or to even advance beyond phase one—Utah will need plenty of funding. As things stand, municipalities looking to add vertiport infrastructure can apply for loans from the state. They can also issue general or revenue-obligated bonds if they expect to make money from those sites. And through a pair of recent House bills, federal financing is now becoming available. More is expected when the FAA is reauthorized.

“Mechanisms to acquire the money needed to pay for the new technologies are already in place, and more funding is anticipated from the federal government,” the report reads. “Most importantly, Utah’s preparation allows the state the flexibility to start at a methodical, yet efficient, pace.”

Researchers suggest the state might consider issuing bonds, appropriating general revenues, or using green revolving funds to help finance AAM projects. Potential funding mechanisms could also include fees (such as for landing, airspace usage, or permitting) and sales or excise taxes (such as on aircraft sales or facility charges).

How Utah Could Get AAM Laws on the Books

Though the report is not meant to create any new AAM rules, the researchers do suggest a few initial steps legislators could take to get the regulatory ball rolling.

For example, they point out that Utah Senate Bill 166, passed last year, defines the term “AAM system” and calls for state preemption of local AAM laws. Legislators could consider adding definitions such as “aerial transit corridor,” “vertiport,” or “UTM” to the rule, the report suggests.

To address property rights concerns, Utah could establish avigation easements, which would essentially give the state the rights to use airspace above private property, with the owner’s permission. The creation of an AAM Program Office and formal processes for licensing vertiports and registering AAM aircraft could also clear up things.

Researchers also say the state should consider requiring all municipalities to add the terms “drone package delivery” and “aerial taxi operations” to their approved conditional use permit lists. This would provide a basis for early AAM entrants to operate legally. Enacting zoning language for takeoff and landing sites and “vertiport overlay zones” could help municipalities further prepare for the birth of a new sector.

“Advanced air mobility is an entirely new transportation system and presents new opportunities and challenges never before encountered by departments of transportation,” the report concludes. “However, national-scale solutions for the entirety of the system do not need to be resolved prior to Utah implementing the first steps and phases toward active operations.”

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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