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San Diego could become hub for drone development -- if hurdles are cleared

With the Federal Aviation Administration issuing the first official permit for commercial drone use on Tuesday, talk of making California -- and San Diego, specifically -- a hub for the creation and production of these unmanned systems as a national Center of Excellence is more real than ever.

Industry leaders met at the California Unmanned Aerial Systems Summit, coincidentally on Tuesday as well, to hash out the roadblocks that still need to be overcome to make this a reality.

“California is really well-positioned for this Center of Excellence, just based on the amount of activity that’s happening in the state,” said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, on a collaborative effort to establish California and San Diego as an FAA Center of Excellence in unmanned aerial systems, despite -- or perhaps due to -- being snubbed by the federal government for one of six coveted drone test sites, a fact that many are still bitter about.

One of San Diego’s main selling points is the breadth of activity already underway here -- everything from defense UAS to civil and commercial varieties, made by companies ranging from Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, to the smaller CTJ & Associates and work done in university labs.

West quoted figures from a Teal Group report that found that the global UAS market last year was $11.3 billion, and expected to grow to $140 billion over 10 years.

AUVSI produced its own additional reports, finding that the national economic impact of only civil and commercial aircraft would hit $13.6 billion in the first three years after integration into the air space – ostensibly Sept. 30, 2015, when the FAA issues commercial UAS regulations -- and climb to $82.1 billion over 10 years.

For California, the AUVSI report details a $14.4 billion economic impact with 18,000 jobs created over that same 10-year period.

But -- and it’s a big but -- even West said she highly doubts the FAA will have actionable airspace integration regulations in place by the Sept. 30 date, which at the very least would push back the timeline for reaching these numbers.

“I don’t know that there’s anybody in this room that actually is really confident that Sept. 30, 2015, is going to see UAS integration -- I think we all know that that’s several years away,” West said. “Every year there’s an integration delay it’ll cost the United States over $10 billion in lost economic potential, and that translates to $27 million a day.”

Mike Kulinksi, vice president of business development for ViaSat, said he’s also concerned about the reality of these figures in regards to the FAA timeline, but also because of privacy concerns and questions about use.

“I’m skeptical about getting any time of final approval from the FAA,” Kulinski said. “The other thing is, some of those numbers got quantified by Gretchen when she said precision agriculture would account for 80 percent of the total commercial drone use -- that’s in a very remote area. But if we’re really thinking about doing these things you read about in the news with Amazon and Google flying UAVs for deliveries, I don’t anticipate that’s going to happen by 2015.”

Kulinski said ViaSat, which doesn’t produce UAV platforms themselves but the data links they need, has been doing increasing international business, though he noted that orders still typically come from a department of defense-type agency, in many cases for border or maritime surveillance.

He said the company has delivered data links for UAVs in Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.

Kulinski said he understands the reluctance on the part of the FAA to rush into regulations, as there are serious safety and privacy concerns at stake.

The Certificate of Waiver issued on Tuesday was for a small Styrofoam UAS -- made by Southern California-based AeroVironment--to be used by BP over an oil field in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, far from any large population centers, and small enough to not do much damage in any case.

When it comes to larger systems or use over a populated area, the integration date the economic impact numbers are based on may be unrealistic.

Charles Johnson, senior adviser for unmanned and autonomous systems at the Armstrong Flight Research center, also pointed out that the role of the FAA is not to speed the adoption of this technology -- it’s safety.

“It’s not their goal to enable UAS access,” Johnson said. “It’s their goal to make sure that the system is safe enough. And I think that’s where the FAA has struggled with the fact that they really believe that it’s the right thing to do -- to enable UAS access -- and you see that in the fact that they have a UAS integration office, they spend, you have no idea how much time they’re spending on this, I see it day to day. So they really want to make something happen, but at the same time, if there is an incident or accident, the FAA administrator is going to be fired, not any of us. So they have to be really conscious of that. And their approach a decade ago may have been we don’t want anything to do with this -- now I think they’re actually making a concentrated effort to try to do something.”

Will it be fast and unrestrictive enough to facilitate this $82 billion dollar market in California by 2025? We’ll find out on Sept. 30, 2015 -- or not.


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