SALT LAKE CITY — Those having trouble envisioning thousands of package- and human-carrying drones buzzing above downtown Salt Lake City need squint no more.
On Wednesday a group of University of Utah students unveiled the first iteration of a new software program, a sort of game really, that simulates exactly what that will look like. The software project is aiming to play a vital role in helping the state manage the onslaught of new air traffic that will be appearing overhead a lot sooner than most people think.
Utah Division of Aeronautics Director Jared Esselman said he expects a small number of package delivery drones could be operating in Utah airspace as early as next year and may ramp up quickly after that. And, he noted, manned drones won't be far behind.
"Drone Commander" is being developed by a team of graduate students in the U.'s Electronic Arts and Entertainment Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab. The project is driven by a contract with the Utah Department of Transportation, under which Esselman's division operates. He said his team is fully engaged with the work of establishing a viable drone management and control system for Utah and expects the simulator under development at the U. will play an important role in the effort.
"We continue to work through this process with the FAA," Esselman said. "Every week there is a new issue to tackle and its often the case that a solution brings up another challenge.
"But, we're making headway and I think we'll be ready … to embrace this when the technology and the FAA is where it needs to be."
Graduate student Mikaila Young, working as a producer on the Drone Commander project, said the software is being developed to simulate the real-world challenges that will come with drone operations.
"The project creates a simulation of a potential autonomous air traffic system for Salt Lake City," Young said. "When completed, it will allow UDOT to evaluate things like how many drones can we have safely flying at the same time in a specific area, how fast they can go, how much space does each drone need and how to respond when something goes wrong."
While Young and the project team are essentially building the software from the ground up, she said they've been able to adopt some ideas from programs that use realistic maps of space, like Sim City and others, to create accurate, three-dimensional representations for the drone management simulator.
It's likely that once drones are upon us, package- and human-carrying taxi drones will operate in designated corridors — package drones between 400-600 feet and taxis between 600-800 feet. Young said a lot of variable factors are at play when it comes to making the simulator do what it's supposed to.
"We expect package delivery drones will be landing and taking off from a lot of locations … whatever address they're sent to for a delivery," Young said. "Taxi drones will be traveling between designated locations, or sky ports."
Sky ports for drone taxis will function pretty much like bus stops. Since taxi drones will be much larger vehicles, perhaps able to carry six or eight passengers, they need more space around sky ports and wherever the vehicles return for home base. Package drones, while smaller, will likely be operating in greater numbers and will perform many more takeoffs and landings.
Jesse Ferraro, facilitator for the U.'s Games and Apps Lab and project manager for Drone Commander, said the simulator also needs to account for unexpected variables.
"One of the things we'll try to account for are things like a drone that loses positive control," Ferraro said. "This is also about finding where the system breaks down … how many drones is too many, what is the critical concentration for a specific area, that kind of thing."
Young said while different variables can change things signficantly, the simulator has shown that 2,000-3,000 drones could operate without incident over an area of Salt Lake City that spans from the U. to about I-15 and from the Capitol to about 400 South. That's with some conservative parameters of a 50-foot minimum operating space and speeds topping out around 30-40 mph. She noted some passenger drones under development may be able to travel at speeds up to 200 mph.
While work on Drone Commander is ongoing — the team has just completed the first semester of a two-semester contract — Esselman said he is happy with the project's progress.
"We're really impressed with how far they've come," Esselman said. "For one semester, what they've done is really foundational and we're looking forward to carrying it forward."