San Diego drone boosters are convinced this local industry is poised to take off soon.

Dozens of businesses here play some role in the unmanned systems industry, from large corporations such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, best known for its large military drones, to startups focused on much smaller devices for hobbyists. Drone companies of all sizes expect business to soar once the Federal Aviation Administration releases long-awaited rules for commercial drone flights.

But big ethical questions hover around drones. Privacy advocates fear camera-toting drones will intrude on Americans and others have expressed concerns about San Diego-produced drones carrying out covert strikes on foreign targets.

These dynamics helped foster a lack of clarity on the drone business’s footprint here. So for more than a month, I’ve been on a quest to assess the scope of San Diego’s drone industry, who’s using them locally and what some business leaders are doing to make our region a nationally-known hub for the devices.

Here’s a look at what we learned about San Diego’s drone industry and some big questions that remain.

SoCal’s Drone Offerings

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

• San Diego companies work on a wide variety of drones, from Northrop Grumman’s 16-ton Global Hawk used for military surveillance to 3D Robotics’ lightweight Aero that’s well-suited for crop monitoring. Then there Lady Gaga’s flying dress that a Carlsbad-based drone developer helped build.

Mystery Surrounds San Diego’s Drone Industry

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• Even industry insiders in San Diego aren’t sure how many companies produce drones or work with them. The rapid growth of the industry, coupled with the covert nature of it, means we still don’t have a clear picture of the region’s drone footprint.

• The current lack of FAA regulations for commercial flights has inspired at least some local drone companies to operate under the radar. The FAA essentially banned business-related flights in 2007. Fifteen San Diego-area companies that help develop drones or use them to capture video footage have received warnings from the FAA. Last month, those companies filed a supportive brief in a drone case that’s made national news.

• There are a few things we do know about the industry, though. For example, we know that more than 2,000 jobs in our region were tied to defense-oriented drones as of 2011, and that our region houses more suppliers and drone-related businesses than those focused on actually building the gadgets.

Combating a Notorious Reputation

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

• Myths and fears about what drones can do have at least partly grounded the drone industry here. We found that drones aren’t acting autonomously for now – that is, they have human pilots – and that the U.S. actually isn’t at the forefront of drone use.

• Much of the drone industry isn’t cool with being dubbed the drone industry. Many business leaders and enthusiasts prefer one of at least five acronyms they’re convinced better describe all the capabilities of their devices. They aren’t having much success getting the names to catch on.

Local Governments Don’t Have Drones – Yet

• Police across the world are using drones to monitor crowds, track missing people and gather evidence after car crashes. But five of the San Diego area’s biggest law enforcement agencies say they aren’t interested in obtaining drones for now. That’s despite the fact that police in Los Angeles and Tijuana, San Diego’s big-city neighbors, now both have them.

• Fire officials didn’t use drones to combat May’s wildfires, though the California National Guard has said it’d be willing to deploy its large surveillance drone to help monitor blazes. Several local drone enthusiasts flew their drones over the fires last month. They captured sweeping footage of the billowing smoke and flames.

Cali Wants Official Drone Hub Designation

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• The San Diego region’s bid to become a national drone testing hub crumbled last year after a lack of statewide backing. California drone boosters now have a second shot. State leaders plan to submit a new bid to the FAA this year to become a drone research center, which could translate into tens of millions of dollars in federal research grants for the university leading the effort. (Locals are hoping that’ll be UC San Diego.)

• Last year’s failed FAA bid convinced business leaders they need to rally the region’s drone stakeholders – academics and industry types alike – behind the new effort and learn more about challenges that could impede the industry’s success in California. They gathered more than 300 state drone fans this week to discuss the region’s drone offerings and the roadblocks to industry growth.

The Big Questions

There are lots of questions surrounding the drone industry’s future here. Here are some of the major ones to follow.

• How will drones be used, and will they be governed by explicit privacy rules? There’s been a flurry of drone-related privacy legislation proposed, and the industry is awaiting FAA rules that will detail exactly what drones can do for private companies. The FAA is expected to release its regulations for drones under 55 pounds by the end of the year and must develop more comprehensive commercial drone rules by September 2015.

• How will we address safety concerns? Flying a drone requires some skill, as I learned recently. Even drone industry leaders fear the possibility of a serious, well-publicized accident could stymie the drone industry’s rise.

• Will our region continue to be at the forefront of drone innovation? San Diego long ago secured major defense companies that play a big role in the drone industry. But the most significant growth is likely to come in the commercial sector. Many smaller companies have sprouted up here and business leaders are working to learn more about how they can help this part of the industry flourish. Organizers of this week’s drone summit said broad public and political support will be crucial to keep these companies here over the long haul.

• Just how many jobs is the drone industry supplying in the San Diego area, and how many more could it bring here? The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. plans to work with other state business groups to take a census of the drone industry and deliver a study by this fall.

This is the final chapter of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – Drone-Makers Ponder the Path to Friendlier Skies in California.

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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