University of Utah Students helping UDOT predict future drone traffic

SALT LAKE CITY - Students at the University of Utah are working with the Utah Department of Transportation to try and predict what drone traffic will be like in our state and how to handle it.

The team of students is part of the Therapeutic Games & Apps Lab and they came up with the game ‘Drone Commander’ to simulate the limits of drone use in Utah. UDOT hopes to use this to build its own traffic system for drones in the next 4 or 5 years.

Jesse Ferraro, the Project Manager of Therapeutic Games & Apps Lab, says “The whole system uses UDOT’s infrastructure of roads because that’s where the drones will be flying over.”

“How the drone will actually follow the set of roads and which directions and what elevation they’ll go, that’s part of what our simulation is trying to solve and trying to figure out,” said Ferraro.

The team of developers started working on this project in August 2018 and so far they say they’ve been able to simulate what drone traffic will be like in a small slice of downtown Salt Lake City.

“What we’ll be seeing is we’ll be seeing package delivery drones, medical supply, as well as drone taxis for humans,” said Ferraro.

The drone taxis Ferraro is referring to are the ones being pitched by companies like Uber who already have realistic renderings of how they want them to work.

“The way it’s set up right now is we have package delivery drones and medical supply drones will be sharing one set of lanes around 400 to 600 feet and then the air taxi drones will be above that,” said Ferraro.

“If you have one drone taking off from a sky port and another drone that wants to land at that sky port then you need to make sure they wait for each other,” says Srija Kambhampati, an Engineer with the Therapeutic Games & Apps Lab.

To add to that, Amazon wants to deliver packages to you via drones, meaning the skies could get very busy, very fast.

Mikaila Young, Producer of Drone Commander, says a big part of this simulation is making sure they don’t get into a situation where drones collide with one another.

Young says the plan is for this simulation to help UDOT figure out the best way to control drone traffic including how fast the drones should go, how far away they need to be from each other at all times, and how fast they can be added to the system.

“I’m really excited to see this inform the actual drone system and see it accelerate the time from on when we’re going to be able to get our pizzas delivered by drone or hop in a drone taxi instead of taking an uber,” said Young.

The brains behind Drone Commander say the long term goal is to make something that can be used for training purposes.

Drone Commander Technical Artist Sourabh Hamigi says the next step would be expanding the snippet of Salt Lake City they have right now.

Engineers working on the game say there’s also a lot of work that still needs to be done about drone behavior within the framework that UDOT is trying to build.

“For example, they speak of having corridors for drones and there’s like a few rules of how drones should switch corridors or switch layers or lanes within corridors so that needs to be implemented,” said Kambhampati.

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