Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance Will Help Grow Utah’s UAS Industry

Last April, the Governor's Office of Economic Development announced the formation of a unique partnership between Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems, Utah Valley University, GOED and the Utah Film Commission.

Called the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance (MWUSA), the partnership has a goal to establish Utah as a viable hub for the commercial development, testing and use of unmanned aerial systems, or "drones."

"We want to make Utah the example of responsible commercial use of unmanned aerial systems," says Ryan Wood, marketing manager of Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems and president of the MWUSA. "There are so many applications for these unmanned aerial vehicles that can have an immediate impact on the local economy and public safety in general."

Last February the FAA released a "Notice of Proposed Rule Making" to change the current FAA rules and regulations to allow commercial operations for small unmanned aerial systems under 55 pounds. The FAA's present policy prevents commercial use of unmanned aerial systems in all but a few specific instances. Wood says the FAA has been working on the "safe integration" of unmanned aerial systems and recently told a Congressional hearing that the proposed new rules should be in place by the summer of 2016.

When the proposed rules go into effect, the FAA will allow licensed unmanned aerial systems operators to conduct commercial flights with vehicles under 55 pounds as long as several guidelines are followed, such as a observing a flight ceiling of 500 feet above ground level and keeping the vehicle within the operator's line of sight.

According to a Forbes magazine report, the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry will have a $13.6 billion economic impact within three years of adoption of the proposed FAA rules. A large amount of that impact will be to the benefit of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Furthermore, the rule change could have huge implications for Utah. UAS is a target segment of Utah's aerospace cluster and making autonomous air, ground and marine vehicles – of all types – will provide significant growth opportunities for providers of platforms, communications, sensors and control systems.

Parlaying the extensive use of UAS by the military into civil and commercial applications has already begun, creating an industry and market segment that will grow far beyond the military market. Utah has long been involved in this nascent UAS industry, largely due to the leadership and research taking place at Utah State University, University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University. These schools have exhibited excellence in the basic research that is enabling technologies for the UAS industry and they have participated in and won many competitions associated with autonomous systems and robotics.

Moreover, a number of Utah companies have been spawned from these university programs and the companies are now a vital part of this growing industry cluster. For example, Kairos Autonomi has been developing ground robotics systems and supported U of U and BYU entries into the DARPA Urban Challenge. The company has also fielded unmanned ground vehicles for the Department of Defense and is exploring opportunities in the commercial and industrial market.

Another Utah company, Flying Sensors Inc., is exploring the surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of unmanned aircraft deployed for military applications to the commercial and industrial markets.

There are numerous applications where UAS could be beneficial for commercial and civil use, including emergency services, avalanche control, search and rescue, farming and ranching, wildfire monitoring and management – anything that's deadly, dirty or dangerous. What's more, exciting opportunities exist at Dugway Proving Ground and Hill Air Force Base to extend their missions to support unmanned systems testing, evaluation and logistics activities as the military moves to realize its mandate to have one third of its vehicle fleet autonomous in the 2015 timeframe.

The newly formed MWUSA organization is currently reaching out to qualified local public agencies, educational instructions and private companies to join the partnership and help move Utah to the forefront of the growing and exciting UAS industry. Qualified entities interested in MWUSA membership may reach out to Ryan Wood of Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems at [email protected].