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San Diego missed out last year on a shot to become a national drone testing hub.
Now, leaders have another chance to be at the forefront of drone research, and they’re taking pains to ensure they don’t repeat the mistakes they believe doomed their first bid.
A handful of San Diego and state-level officials attended meetings in Virginia this week to learn more about an FAA solicitation seeking a region to lead a national research network that’ll help the federal agency develop long-awaited rules for drone flights. California has yet to formalize a bid but is busy building a statewide coalition.
If the state is named a Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, it could mean tens of millions in federal grant dollars for the university that helps lead the effort. UC San Diego, which already conducts some drone-related research, could be a front-runner for the state bid, according to two Southern California officials who attended the FAA meetings this week. If it’s selected by the FAA, UC San Diego professors and students will be expected to work closely with drone developers, other universities and government agencies, including the Department of Defense and NASA over the next decade.
Leaders behind the latest bid say winning the FAA competition would send a national message that the state, particularly Southern California, is at the forefront of drone development.
But a similar push got little traction last year. Backers of that failed bid – which included leaders from Kern and San Diego counties who wanted to make the region one of six national drone testing centers – say that effort was hampered by a lack of statewide teamwork and political support.
By the end of the 2013 process, California was the only state with two competing proposals. Groups in the San Diego region and Ventura County each worked on their own bids. Neither made the cut when the FAA chose its test sites last year. Instead, competitors in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia won out.
California’s dueling proposals were among the reasons some of the region’s most powerful political voices remained silent. Gov. Jerry Brown never spoke publicly about either bid and while most of the San Diego region’s congressional delegation signed supportive letters, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer stayed mum.
“The biggest thing we learned is that we have to collaborate to compete,” said Louis Stewart, a deputy director in the governor’s economic development office.
So aviation and business leaders are trying to emphasize partnerships this time around.
Stakeholders across the state participate in regular conference calls. The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., one of the key groups behind the latest push, has organized meetings with key universities and drone companies. Early next month, several Southern California groups will host what they’re dubbing a California Unmanned Aircraft Systems Summit to discuss the challenges and opportunities for the drone industry here.
A week later, the governor’s economic development department will convene university and business leaders in Sacramento to decide which institution will take the lead on the FAA bid and what others can offer to bolster the proposal.
Matt Sanford of the San Diego Regional EDC, one of five Californians who attended the Virginia meetings this week, said Thursday that UC San Diego may have an edge.
It’s known for aerospace and at least some drone research, and San Diego is home to dozens of drone companies, including giants Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
The presence and support of those companies, plus UC San Diego’s history of intellectual property development and federally funded research “fits the model for a lead entity,” Sanford said.
Ventura County airport director Todd McNamee, another member of the statewide team that attended the Virginia gathering, agreed. He said UC San Diego has a strong aerospace engineering program and is adept at grant-writing, a skill that’s crucial here.
So far, though, UC San Diego hasn’t fully committed to leading the FAA bid. A spokesman said this week that professors are eager to get a better sense of the scope of the project before they decide what role they’d like to play.
Stewart said it’s not clear yet which college the group may push to head the effort. He considers UC Merced, another state front-runner. Cal Poly Pomona and a few other universities that have worked on drone-related projects may also be in the running.
Stewart emphasized that no one university in California can adequately address each of the seven drone research areas the FAA has set. Stewart said the team has been in contact with universities as far away as New York and Kansas to discuss how they could collaborate, a dynamic the FAA is encouraging for all potential applicants.
“This is really going to be a cross-continental kind of thing,” Stewart said.
Those conversations made Stewart more confident about the state’s chances but at least some Californians who participated in last year’s FAA bid process can only muster cautious optimism.
Eileen Shibley is director of Cal UAS Portal Consortium, a group that led the San Diego region’s failed FAA bid. The politics of that process left her exhausted.
She’s convinced support from the full congressional delegation, the governor and leaders across the region will be essential to the latest bid’s success. Shibley, who is less involved in this year’s effort, said she’s heard the statewide team is more focused on getting such backing this time around.
“They’re really trying to get everybody’s buy-in and I hope that will make a huge positive difference,” Shibley said.
This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – What We Know About San Diego’s Drone Industry – and the next in our series – San Diego-Area Cops: We’re Not Interested in Drones – Yet.