San Diego’s been dubbed the “hub of the U.S. drone industry.” For our next quest, we want to take a closer look.

Two leading corporate players – General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman – as well as several smaller companies are based here. And a National University System study that found that Department of Defense contracts for unmanned devices alone contributed at least $1.3 billion to the regional economy in 2011.

But as you might expect from devices that can fly unencumbered, record people’s actions and complete tasks as adorable as delivering a wedding ring and as grim as carrying out covert strikes on foreign targets, there’s plenty of controversy and outrage that could shape the industry’s future here.

Yet analysts mostly believe San Diego’s drone industry will continue to grow and that drones – also called unmanned aerial vehicles – will be used for more and more commercial endeavors in the future.

The industry is facing a key turning point.

The Federal Aviation Administration is set to release regulatory guidelines that will open up big money-making possibilities for commercial drone manufacturers, a process slowed by fears that the camera-toting technology will violate Americans’ privacy rights. Meanwhile, a national industry group predicts California alone will see thousands more jobs and billions of dollars in direct economic impacts in the decade after the FAA gives commercial drone use the official go-ahead.

Both the possibilities and the current reality of the industry raise big economic and moral questions for San Diego residents, who stand to benefit from their success and also to be hampered by it in the form of intrusive spying or malfunction-caused injuries.

How big is San Diego’s drone footprint, anyway? How many companies in our region play some role in unmanned systems technology – whether for military purposes or for commercial uses? How are drones already being used here? Is San Diego’s drone industry sustainable, and are there needs that aren’t being met, particularly at area universities? How are local boosters positioning our region for commercial drones’ market launch? What are the specific privacy concerns that could stymie those efforts, and are there ways to address them? And are San Diegans inclined to support both government and commercial uses of drones?

I’m going to try to answer some of these questions over the next several weeks, and I hope you’ll suggest some others for me to tackle, too.

Sara Libby, VOSD’s managing editor, recently came up with a good way to understand these reporting quests: They’re less like a scripted play – written and rehearsed in advance, and rolled out in controlled acts – and more like improv performances, which are partly shaped by audience feedback and the cast’s own dynamics. You play a role in this reporting journey I’m about to embark on.

I want to focus on San Diego’s slice of the drone industry and the economic and moral quandaries specifically tied to this region, and I’ll be seeking your suggestions on which angles to follow along the way.

So let’s get started: What do you want to know about San Diego’s drone industry? Do your views on military and commercial uses differ? What are your concerns about future use of drones and their development here?

Please add your thoughts in the comment section or email me directly at

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the next story – The Drone Industry’s Ready to Take Off: Required Reading.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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