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TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 26: A drone operated by the SES can be seen flying at the site where two young boys drowned on February 26, 2019 in Townsville, Australia. The bodies of the brothers, aged 3 and 5, were found in the Ross River on Tuesday morning. They went missing on Monday afternoon in the south-west suburb of Cranbrook. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
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UDOT: Drone Use Saving Lives, As Well As Trimming Budget

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The Utah Department of Transportation is expanding its use of drones in daily operations to save lives, time and money. A study released today at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) conference in Park City today shows a majority of state departments of transportation are doing the same.

“Now we can do what was dangerous and dirty, we can do with a drone in a matter of minutes,” said Jared Esselman, UDOT Director of Aeronautics.

UDOT hosted transportation leaders today in a national conference highlighting the next wave of real-life drone applications and the role they play in drone development. State transportation leaders are also partly responsible for mapping out the future of drone traffic with highways in the sky.

Three years ago, not a single department of transportation used drones in regular operations.

Today, 36 DOTs, including UDOT, are using drones regularly for work that is dangerous, dirty or dull. They’ve quickly become a tool UDOT uses to survey, map and inspect roads and bridges.

“It’s safer,” said Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of UDOT. “We can set up less traffic control. We don’t expose our people to some really serious hazard and we can get really fantastic information that way.”

Right now UDOT is in the process of expanding from 13 drone pilots to 40 and putting them on each of their incident management trucks.

“We actually have been putting drones on our incident management trucks so we can clear accidents from the roadway more quickly and get traffic flowing more smoothly,” said Esselman.

UDOT is also working to determine how hundreds and hundreds of drones will coexist over our heads, essentially mapping out highways in the sky. Will there be a new control center with its own radar and GPS systems?

“Instead of just having that be a wild, wild west, we are preparing and coordinating,” said Esselman. “Where should these transportation corridors go? It makes sense to put them over the current transportation corridors they literally are highways in the sky.”

Each state needs to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to map out a 3-D framework with horizontal and vertical lanes for drones to fly in. There’s a lot of logistical and governmental work to be done before we’re receiving packages on our doorstep delivered by drone, or even hopping into a drone taxi.

“If you have multiple drones in the air, you have to make sure that they all know where each other is, so they don’t crash into each other,” said Braceras, “and (that) they don’t crash on top of people as well.  You could have package delivery in a certain direction, or at another altitude, you would have people flying around in drones.  It’s really starting to feel a little bit like the Jetsons.”

The state will also need rules for the Utah-made ElectraFly, a prototype for a personal flying vehicle. It’s essentially a drone ridden by a human, controlled remotely or manually.

So, how soon will packages and people arrive by drone?

“Sooner than most people think,” said Esselman. “We’re looking at our first real package delivery via drone in the next year.”

Within five years, he said, drone package delivery should be pretty commonplace, and we may even see a couple of drone taxis by then.

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