San Diego’s drone industry is at least somewhat grounded by misunderstandings about how its systems work and what they are allowed to do.

The FAA has weighed rules surrounding business uses of drones for years, a process slowed by widespread fears they could invade Americans’ privacy or pose safety risks.

This, coupled with the complex dynamics of this relatively new industry, has allowed some big myths about the industry to fester.

Let’s clear up a few of them.

Drones act autonomously.

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Many folks associate drones with robots that blindly follow a mission or even boldly set out on their own.

But the unmanned aircrafts flying today still require a human pilot manning the controls on the ground. Depending on the system, this could mean someone is holding a controller or sitting in front of a more sophisticated computer system. Some drones incorporate GPS.

“The vehicle itself isn’t just going out and flying and making decisions,” said Ben Gielow, senior government relations manager for the industry’s lobbying arm, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

That’s not to say drones won’t ever determine their own paths.

A couple years ago, Northrop Grumman debuted a drone known as the X-47B that can fly – and even land on an aircraft carrier – on its own.  The Navy acquired two X-47Bs in late 2008 and has conducted lots of testing on them since. Another round is set to begin in August.

Still, military leaders say they can override a drone’s software-generated plans.

San Diego is home to two big drone companies.

The presence of two major drone-makers in San Diego was enough for outsiders to dub San Diego the U.S. drone hub.

Yes, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which both primarily produce unmanned systems for the military, are here – but they’re not the only drone companies in town.

So far, I’ve found more than a dozen other companies that play some role in the drone industry. Examples include 3D Robotics, which largely sells small systems to hobbyists and farmers, and Datron World Communications, a distributor of one of the more popular military and law enforcement systems.

Many of these smaller companies stand to see an uptick in business once the FAA releases regulations for commercial drone flights. Those rules aren’t expected to be in place until at least next year, which is why some companies operate virtually undercover.

Drones are just flying machines.

Image courtesy Ocean Aero
Image courtesy of Ocean Aero

The latest drone debate largely revolves around the devices that move up in the air but they’re not the only unmanned systems.

San Diego alone is home to a handful of companies that design or service sophisticated gizmos that dive underwater or drive around without a human on board.

Ocean Aero in Point Loma is working on a scavenging vessel that can be used to monitor everything from water quality to marine animals, and SeaBotix builds underwater drones that can record and retrieve objects under the sea.

Then there’s Vision Robotics in Sorrento Valley, which produces robots that can thin lettuce and prune grapes, and 5D Robotics in Carlsbad, which develops software for a variety of ground drones.

The U.S. is at the forefront of drone use.

The U.S. has the world’s largest military drone fleet but experimentation elsewhere surpasses what American businesses are doing.

Yamaha has long supplied Japanese farmers with RMAX helicopters they use to spray their crops with fertilizers and pesticides. They’re now used in South Korea and Australia too.

The Associated Press recently detailed some other schemes taking flight overseas:

Television networks use drones to cover cricket matches in Australia. Zookal, a Sydney company that rents textbooks to college students, plans to begin delivering books via drones later this year. The United Arab Emirates has a project underway to see whether government documents like driver’s licenses, identity cards and permits can be delivered using small drones.

In the United Kingdom, energy companies use drones to check the undersides of oil platforms for corrosion and repairs, and real estate agents use them to shoot videos of pricey properties. In a publicity stunt last June, a Domino’s Pizza franchise in the U.K. posted a YouTube video of a “DomiCopter” drone flying over fields, trees and homes to deliver two pizzas.

U.S. drone makers are pushing similar uses here – particularly for farmers – but a lack of clarity on whether drones can fly for commercial purposes has partly hindered the drone industry here. The FAA essentially banned commercial flights in 2007 and attorneys on both sides are now arguing whether the agency has the authority to enforce a regulation that wasn’t formally approved.

As a result, some U.S. manufacturers are actually selling more drones to international customers than those in their home country.

Jill Meyers, senior manager at 3D Robotics in Otay Mesa, told Voice of San Diego about 70 percent of her company’s sales are with consumers overseas or across the border.

“Because they don’t have the restrictions,” Meyers said.

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – Drone-Makers Want to Build Household Products – But Not a Household Name – and the next in our series – Why Firefighters Aren’t Using Drones to View the Blazes – Yet.

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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