User Stories: Drone Commander and Utah Department of Transportation

Why are large-scale digital twins important? How does Geopipe data uniquely enable developers to build innovative spatial products?


In our latest in a series of posts that showcase how people use Geopipe worlds, we interview an interdisciplinary team at the University of Utah that envisions a traffic control system for UAS (unmanned aerial systems), or drones.


The Drone Commander Team we interviewed included:


Jared Esselman, Director of Aeronautics, State of Utah

Ryan Bailey, Innovation and Implementation Specialist, State of Utah

Paul Wheeler, UAS Program Manager, Utah Department of Transportation

Brian Salisbury, Associate Professor, Lecturer, Entertainment Arts and Engineering, University of Utah

Jesse Ferraro, Project Facilitator, Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab, University of Utah


This team created Drone Commander, an innovative solution for one of the hottest topics in drones: Universal Traffic Management, or UTM. UTM is the concept for an automated air traffic control system for the busy skies of the future: management of overall drone traffic including air taxi, medical supply, and package delivery drones.


Drone Commander in a Geopipe World

What is Drone Commander?


Drone Commander is a simulation tool designed to analyze drone traffic over Salt Lake City to provide an organized approach towards airspace management. This enables stakeholders to envision the challenges of implementing airspace management in Salt Lake City. Built in Unity, we use Geopipe’s 3D digital twins to provide the real world, accurate context for the simulation.


What inspired Drone Commander?


The Utah Department of Transportation was looking at the urban aerial mobility question, and we wanted to provide an organized approach towards airspace management. There was no existing model that was usable to deal with potentially thousands of vehicles flying over a city, so we came up with our own. We said: let’s design a system. We want to design it, and try to break it. We started out just guessing, not planning. We needed a model for the vehicles and how they work together, and there was nothing existing that let us do that.

As government transportation planners, we decided to use existing roads and highways as guides, and bring them up to 400 feet package delivery and aerial taxis. This was for use over downtown Salt Lake City, so the normal airport rules did not apply. We were especially poised to do it because of a special radar system we have in Salt Lake City that lets us see small traffic. Ultimately, our hope is that the simulation will be offered as a standardized training tool for air traffic controllers.


Geopipe offers the accuracy of the real world with the flexibility of the digital world. Why is it important to use accurate 3D data for Drone Commander?


These are low-flying aircraft. We’re required to keep traffic below 400 feet in elevation, and our tallest building in Salt Lake City is 437 feet. We have to consider terrain variances, and we need to use both vertical and horizontal separation in our traffic lanes. We need to know where those are and what can be built in the future.


Why did you pick Geopipe for this project?


From the engineering side, there wasn’t any other platform that could meet our needs like Geopipe. Drone Commander is built in Unity, and we use Geopipe’s 3D data to set the scene for hundreds of small UAS interacting, avoiding collisions, and following different airspace rules. We needed an API and licensing agreement that could let us stream the environment into Unity, and you can’t do that with any other platform.


What is your vision for Drone Commander?


Short term, we want to build a system where we can test and validate thresholds and pain points. For example: what volume of traffic can our airspace handle? Long term, we want to develop software to train drone airspace managers. Some UTM components will be automated, but there will always be a person in the loop.


Drone Commander in action.