The future of transportation is autonomous. Self-driving vehicles and unmanned air taxis have the potential to create a world in which the computer is literally in the driver’s seat. Flying vehicles may sound like a Jetsonian, “pie in the sky” concept, but it’s a reality that’s coming to Utah within the coming decade. 

“Industry analysts project that urban air mobility will be integrated by 2023,” says Jared Esselman, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT)’s Director of Aeronautics. “We may see a new method of air transportation in the next five years and we are working to ensure Utah is ready for it. Safety is our top priority so the proper regulations and infrastructure will need to be established.”

What does this mean for the future of mobility in Utah?

Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is a new transportation system in which unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) like air taxis and personal flying vehicles operate in airspace over an urban environment. UAM technologies are advancing rapidly to support the safe transportation of packages and people. While current commercial flight occurs between 30,000 to 35,000 feet above ground level (AGL), a UAM system will operate between 200-2,000 feet AGL. 

More than a dozen Utah-based companies and entities are already working in the UAM industry and Deseret UAS is one of them. Deseret UAS is a state-funded non-profit organization created through a partnership with Tooele and Box Elder Counties, in close collaboration with Ogden City. The organization’s mission is to facilitate rural economic development through the advancement of the urban air mobility (UAM) industry here in Utah.

Companies are racing to commercialize their UAM technologies and need places to test like the miles of wide-open land and air that these rural counties have to offer. In addition, Deseret UAS’ ability to secure Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight test authorizations makes Utah the perfect environment for companies to locate here and bring hundreds of jobs with them.

“We are on the cusp of a transportation revolution,” says Deseret UAS Board Chair and Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne. “The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. We are at an inflection point in the history of human transportation that will improve our air quality, support a robust economy, and fundamentally enhance our quality of life.”

Esselman and Milne explain that our future transportation system will include not only roads, bridges, trails, and sidewalks, but also aerial infrastructure (UAVs, software, radar, etc.) that will comprise the “highways in the sky.”

UAVs are already used in nearly every industry around the world. Commonly known as drones, UAVs are used in search and rescue operations, natural disaster surveying, bridge and mine inspections, aerial photography and videography, and much more. While the use of drones to improve these operations is important, the industry has advanced far beyond single-use UAV applications.

Large companies and small start-ups are vying for a piece of the UAM market that analysts predict will grow to nearly $3 trillion by 2040. Amazon’s Prime AirUber Air,CityAirbus and Boeing’s NeXt are all examples of large companies developing UAM products. Smaller companies like Utah-based start-up, ElectraFly, are vying to be part of this future transportation system as well. ElectraFly has developed a personal self-flying machine that has garnered international attention.

“These vehicles will eventually be fully automated,” explains Esselman. “Even if you have your own flying vehicle, you may be operating it more than piloting it.” And noise, safety, and privacy concerns? Esselman says that because the vehicles are expected to fly between 200 and 2000 feet over ground-based corridors they will be too high to be seen or heard. 

“Safety is our top priority. All aircraft must meet a very strict, federal safety standard,” Esselman states. “Statistically speaking, flying is the safest way to travel. Imagine when we extend that safety to lower altitude flights across the city.”

While urban air mobility will help achieve the state’s goal of Zero Fatalities, there are a myriad of other benefits as well. “With safer highways in the sky, Utah’s transportation system would be truly multimodal,” says Fortem Technologies CEO Timothy Bean. “The economy would flourish with new businesses, including lifesaving services and recreational opportunities. For example, the ability to travel from one’s home to Snowbird for $8 in 14 minutes would benefit many Utahns. The direct benefits to the state are deeply profound and unprecedented in scale.”

Some of the benefits that industry professionals cite when explaining the significance of urban air mobility to Utah include:

Improve Air Quality- The clean battery technology used in UAVs will reduce mobile source emissions, significantly improving our air quality.

Reduce Traffic Congestion- Urban air mobility will markedly reduce traffic congestion.  Literally, the sky is the limit; it has no roadblocks.

Promote Fiscal Sustainability- UAM will fundamentally provide a more fiscally sustainable approach to the state’s transportation investments since the costs associated with aerial infrastructure are relatively minor compared to the billions we currently invest in our roads, rails and bridges.

Support Vibrant Economy- By developing urban air mobility systems, Utah will attract more companies, additional private-sector investment and high-paying jobs. A robust UAM system that integrates seamlessly with the ground-based transportation system will significantly improve workers’ access to jobs and reduce commute times.

Protect the Environment- Utah is projected to double its population by 2065. There is a risk that this growth could come at a cost to the state’s limited natural resources. Urban Air Mobility can facilitate responsible growth that meets the needs of an ever-increasing population while simultaneously protecting the natural environment.

With urban air mobility a reality in the coming years, the State’s slogan, “Utah: Life Elevated” may just take on a whole new meaning.

Muriel Xochimitl is the Deseret UAS Communications Director and President of X-Factor Strategic Communications. She is the former Director of Government Affairs and Communications for the Wasatch Front Regional Council and has worked as a Communications Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.