User Stories: Drone Commander and Utah Department of Transportation

Posted by Christi Kroll.

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

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

The Drone Commander Team we interviewed in summer 2020 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: UTM, or Universal Traffic Management. UTM is basically an automated air traffic control system for the busy skies some envision in the future: drone delivery, flying taxis, and conventional general aviation traffic.


Drone Commander in a Geopipe World

Drone Commander in a Geopipe World.

What is Drone Commander?

Jesse: Drone Commander is a visual simulation tool that enables stakeholders to envision the challenges of implementing UTM, or any kind of drone airspace management system, here in Salt Lake City. It 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.

What inspired Drone Commander?

Jared: 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 roads & highways as guides, and bring them up to 400 feet for 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.

Why did you pick Geopipe for this project?

From the engineering side, there wasn’t any platform that was conducive to what we needed: 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.

Why is it important to use accurate 3D data for the setting?

Paul: These are all low-flying aircraft. The corridors bottom out at 400 feet above ground, and our tallest building in SLC is 437 feet. We need to use both vertical and horizontal separation in our traffic lanes, so we had to know where those were and what could be built in the future. Salt Lake City also has plenty of terrain variances.

What is your vision for Drone Commander?

Paul: 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 bear? 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.


Our thanks to the whole Drone Commander team for their interview, and especially the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab (GApp Lab) at University of Utah. You can find more of the GApp Lab’s important work here and here.

Watch this space for more interviews with Geopipe users who have joined us in our mission: to automate understanding the characteristics of the physical world and democratize engagement with its virtual counterpart.

What story do you want to tell using Geopipe data? Can we help you import the real world into a simulation or game? Let us know!