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San Diego is home to a cluster of drone manufacturers.

Two major industry players have a long-standing presence here, and many smaller companies are waiting for Federal Aviation Administration to release regulations they believe would allow their businesses to take off.

I pulled together some helpful reading to help you catch up on what’s already out there about San Diego’s drone industry and what’s on the horizon for producers here.

• What’s a drone, anyway? Mother Jones has a quick primer that uses photos, maps and an assist from “The Colbert Report” to explain military drones, mainly those used in a secretive program the U.S. has used to target suspected terrorists.

• Last year, The Daily Beast dubbed San Diego “hub of the drone industry,” mostly because it’s home to manufacturing giants General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman, which produce drones central to the U.S. anti-terrorism program. These two companies employ thousands, especially in North County.

• The Central Intelligence Agency is far from the only group using drones. The New York Daily News detailed the tens of thousands of domestic unmanned aircraft systems – as some industry folks like to call them – that law enforcement agencies, hobbyists and dozens of businesses are using regularly. Some of the producers and consumers of these drones are trying out new uses here in San Diego. Indeed, U-T San Diego recently detailed local real-estate agents’ use of drones to advertise homes.

• One of those companies producing non-military drones is former Wired editor Chris Anderson’s drone start-up 3D Robotics, which has a significant footprint in Tijuana and San Diego.

IEEE Spectrum profiled Anderson’s company earlier this year and learned it’s most interested in agricultural uses— for now.

Other drone firms are on the same page. Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International – essentially the drone industry’s lobbying arm – told Spectrum he expects 80 percent of initial commercial adopters will work in agriculture, 10 percent in public safety and another 10 percent in various other areas.

• There’s a major roadblock for drone producers, though: Using a drone for fun is fine but commercial applications aren’t allowed yet.

The FAA essentially banned business uses in 2007, and the industry’s been waiting on the agency to propose formal rules ever since.

Those guidelines are supposed to be released by the end of the year but they’re unlikely to be finalized until at least 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported last week.

• While industry expansions in San Diego are on hold, they brought lots of economic firepower to San Diego even in the midst of the Great Recession. A 2013 San Diego Magazine story took an expansive look at the history of drones in San Diego and assessed the lack of public cheerleading from key lawmakers, as well as privacy concerns that hover over the industry.

• Last year, business leaders rallied behind an effort to make Southern California an FAA drone testing site. But the feds chose other sites, and a KPBS story hinted that a lack of community and political support in San Diego may have been a factor in that decision. A Los Angeles Times columnist was more direct.

• A National University System report released in fall 2012 predicted San Diego County’s drone industry could double once commercial uses are allowed but emphasized that the region is already banking on unmanned systems purchased via federal Department of Defense contracts.

The study estimated that industry brought at least $1.3 billion to the local economy in 2011 alone.

• Many states, including California, are taking steps to regulate law enforcement use of drones and require warrants for their use, mainly because the unmanned objects are essentially flying cameras that can capture data and footage, Stateline reports.

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – Up in the Air: The Future of Drones in San Diego – and the next in our series – San Diego’s Undercover Drone Companies Fight the Feds.

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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