New group aiming to make Utah national leader on air taxis, autonomous flying vehicle operations (2024)

For those who haven’t been spending a lot of time outside monitoring their overhead space it may come as a surprise that autonomous drones have been plying the airways over Utah for two years now, delivering thousands of small parcels to customers in select areas.

Now a new organization that launched Thursday, Project Alta, has plans to not only grow and expand the package and cargo traffic that has zipped around the Wasatch Front since 2022, but aims to establish a system of regional corridors to accommodate passenger-carrying air taxis that have been in development for years and are set to fundamentally reshape the future of transportation.

And the private/public collaboration is hoping to put it all together in time for Utah’s expected opportunity to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2034.

At a press event hosted by advanced composite materials manufacturer Hexcel at its facility in West Valley City on Thursday morning, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox lauded the collaborative strategy to “get this stuff done” and said it was the first step toward a paradigm shift when it comes to the world of transport and transportation.

“What we’re talking about today is an opportunity for us to reimagine what transportation can be here in our state,” the governor said. “We can’t keep widening but we can start going vertical and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Cox said he and the Utah Legislature gave 47G the mandate to “lead the state’s advanced air mobility strategy” and said the end goal was a novel solution that will expand the options for Utahns and visitors to the state to access “everything we have to offer.”

New group aiming to make Utah national leader on air taxis, autonomous flying vehicle operations (1)

What is Project Alta?

Project Alta is an effort formed under the umbrella of 47G, formerly the Utah Aerospace and Defense Association, and is emerging at a time when the technology to transport ever larger cargo loads and human passengers via autonomous aircraft already exists but lacks the infrastructure and regulatory oversight to implement on a bigger scale. But 47G board chairman and former Utah Congressman Chris Stewart says Project Alta is poised to move Utah into a leadership position when it comes to putting advanced aerial mobility into real world situations.

“There’s a mix of real ironic conflicts in this endeavor, in the sense that ... the technology exists today that you could autonomously land a vehicle out here, pick someone up and take them up to Park City,” Stewart said during a visit with the Deseret News editorial board last week. “You could do that. But can you do it to scale? Can you do it in such a way that is safe?

“What we’re trying to do is difficult but it’s absolutely possible. No question about that. And the only question is, who’s going to lead on it? And are we going to do it in a way that makes sense? Or are we just going to hodgepodge our way through this like we are right now, because there is no real national strategy, there is no real national leader on this issue, something that we all know is coming. So we’re going to do that. And we’ll lead on this, and then the nation will follow.”

Project Alta officials say they’re teaming with the office of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Department of Transportation, Utah Inland Port Authority and private industry representatives on a phased plan that would expand drone-based mobility from small package delivery to freight/heavier cargo, build infrastructure in partnership with federal regulators and, in the next decade, set the stage for passenger transport.

The group has recruited national expertise to help usher in the new era of autonomous flying vehicles including former Federal Aviation Administration official Chris Metts, who will serve as Project Alta’s executive director.

Metts’ resume includes serving as FAA deputy assistant administrator and overseeing U.S. air traffic control operations for the federal agency. He has also authored white papers on Urban Air Mobility concepts for both the FAA and NASA.

While Utah’s geography, overall, sets up well for establishing the new autonomous vehicle corridors, urban areas pose more complex challenges than rural zones, and places like Moab, for example, may see earlier opportunities for autonomous flight traffic.

“It has to start with the regulatory process,” Metts told the Deseret News editorial board. “It has to start with the safety case. So even Project Alta that we’re talking about here begins with safety first, security second and (then) economic effectiveness, economic capability. When you start with a safety case ... you’re working in partnership with the regulator. We met with the FAA administrator just this last week and deputy administrator to work out that partnership.”

Metts noted the FAA’s reputation for stringent compliance when it comes to safety issues, and said he and Project Alta will work closely with the agency to earn certifications for the new autonomous aircraft systems and infrastructure in Utah.

While Utah’s geography, overall, sets up well for establishing the new autonomous vehicle corridors, urban areas pose more complex challenges than rural zones, and places like Moab, for example, may see earlier opportunities for autonomous flight traffic, he said.

New group aiming to make Utah national leader on air taxis, autonomous flying vehicle operations (2)

Utah has a flying start on commercial drone use

Officials from 47G and Project Alta say the evolution of drone delivery services that companies like Intermountain Health and Walmart operate in South Jordan, Herriman and Lindon to accommodate autonomous aircraft that could, say, whisk passengers from Salt Lake City International Airport to Park City, will be an incremental one that they unanimously believe is not only doable, but within reach of their 10-year timeline.

“For several years now, Utah has talked about air mobility,” said 47G president and CEO Aaron Starks. “We’ve known it was coming as we’ve all watched venture capital put billions and billions into this emerging industry. We’ve all been looking at this and wondering what it could mean for Utah. It wasn’t until recently when we were meeting with partners, the Inland Port, governor’s office and several others that we said, why don’t we form a coalition for Utah to lead the nation in air mobility? We have the 2034 Olympics coming and we have a 10-year horizon, the timeline is advantageous.”

Besides the efficiencies that could be gained by moving a segment of ground transportation and cargo transport off of surface roads, Starks noted the air quality advantages that could accompany scaling up the task list for new autonomous aircraft thanks to the electric engines that developers are largely employing in the new aircraft. He also underscored the running start Utah has in currently operating commercial drone services as well as other advantages unique to the state.

At Thursday’s press event, Utah Department of Transportation executive director Carlos Braceras also underscored the positive impacts a built-out advance aerial mobility system could have on Utah’s outdoor environment and touted the freedom such a system could add by allowing people to go “where they want, when they want and how they want.”

“What we’re doing here today is talking about a really big vision,” he said. “A vision that can meet the future and set Utah apart from the rest of the world.”

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New group aiming to make Utah national leader on air taxis, autonomous flying vehicle operations (2024)
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