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California drone advocates gathered Tuesday to rally behind the state’s drone industry and learn about potential roadblocks.
Turns out drone boosters are just like us.
Drone-makers and experts seem to share a surprising number of concerns about their own devices as the general public. They worry a big drone crash could injure a civilian. Or that a big privacy breach could turn the public against their industry for good. They think the alphabet soup of acronyms sometimes used to describe certain drones is confusing. And they want to know if the crazy plotlines on “24” could happen in real life.
All of those topics came up Tuesday when more than 300 California drone industry stakeholders packed a Point Loma conference center to mull how the state can dominate the drone business despite all the questions hovering around it.
Organizers wanted to rally the region’s largest drone-makers as well as the small firms and researchers key to the industry’s growth behind an effort to make the state, and perhaps UC San Diego, a national drone research hub.
Big concerns about regulations, negative public perceptions and other potential pitfalls for the industry also got significant airtime at the Tuesday gathering.
Here are some key takeaways from the California Unmanned Aircraft Systems Summit.
A big reason organizers believe California is uniquely poised to serve as an industry research center: the hugely diverse group of drone-makers.
Panelists included executives from traditional military drone producers such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, plus small drone manufacturer AeroVironment, which announced Tuesday its drones were the first to receive FAA approval for commercial flights.
Then there were the much smaller companies, such as CTJ & Associates LLC, which has an office in Scripps Ranch. The company, which currently employs 29 people, builds solar-powered drone platforms that can remain in the air for up to 90 days, far longer than the Global Hawk or Predator drones, which the military uses to conduct surveillance, can fly.
Southern California is also home to drone software developers. Los Angeles-based DreamHammer built a drone operating system used by Lockheed Martin and others. CEO Nelson Paez talked up the possibilities for others to get into the drone software market. There’s a need for dozens of apps that assist firefighters, survey land and serve law enforcement needs, he said.
For more on the dynamics of San Diego’s drone industry, check out this post.
Organizers behind a statewide bid to become an FAA-appointed research center for drones are determined to overcome roadblocks that the drone industry might face.
Organizers and panelists emphasized the need to get key leaders on board. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s public push for drone privacy regulations came up more than once – participants believe it’s a problem for the California drone industry.
“California’s biggest challenge is getting out of its own way,” said Terry Magee of the San Diego Military Advisory Council, whose group helped put together the event.
After the event, Magee said California has a tendency to think the FAA and other groups already recognize its offerings. But he said emphasizing what’s going on here and coalescing behind the industry is essential to ensure it thrives.
Fellow event organizer Matt Sanford of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. told me he sees the gathering as a starting point to ensure the industry can work together to combat its challenges and so leaders across the state can understand those concerns and try to address them. Sanford and Magee also hope the event inspired various drone stakeholders to get behind that state FAA bid.
“It’s ours to lose so we need to make sure we do it right,” Sanford said.
The FAA essentially banned commercial drone flights in 2007, and has been working on regulations to safely fly them ever since. Academics and drone company executives say the dearth of rules is the single biggest detriment to their growth.
The FAA must develop rules for larger drones by September 2015 and has promised to release guidelines for devices under 55 pounds by the end of the year.
That’s not fast enough for the drone industry.
Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, claimed in her Tuesday keynote speech that the lack of FAA rules has hurt the U.S. to the tune of $10 billion a year.
“We want the same access (to U.S. skies) as the manned aircraft,” said Chris Ames, who leads international strategic development for major drone-maker General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which has a major San Diego presence. “It’s important to the continued vibrancy of the industry.”
But Charles Johnson of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, south of Bakersfield, highlighted another reality.
“It’s not (the FAA’s) role to enable UAS access,” Johnson said. “It’s their goal to make sure the system is safe enough.”
Johnson, whose role with NASA means he regularly works with the FAA, said he’s confident the FAA isn’t purposely dragging its feet.
There was lots of talk about combating negative perceptions about drones Tuesday.
Small companies that produce small drones were particularly vocal.
Roy Minson of SoCal-based AeroVironment, the military’s chief small drone provider, confessed he fears a disaster could doom the public’s view on drones. A drone crash that kills someone. A drone that triggers a major privacy breach.
“Our greatest fear is somebody doing something they shouldn’t do,” he said.
One attendee questioned whether the drone industry should get behind public service announcements. Milk and pork producers have touted their products to the public. Why not drones?
Paez said drone companies need to do a better job explaining how the gadgets can be used for good.
“You can talk about advocacy but we need to make drones more valuable to more people,” he said.
A Monday night episode of Fox’s “24” got some buzz at the summit. This week’s bad guy was an adversary who took control of several drones and ordered an attack on a London hospital.
So one attendee had to ask: Should we be worried about scenarios like this?
The answer from Jerry Beaman, who leads Kratos Defense’s combat drone section, didn’t completely take that possibility off the table.
“As we are heavily engaged in cybersecurity, those same principles and securities are being applied to what we do with our aircraft,” Beaman said. “I don’t know that I can sit here and give you a 100 percent guarantee it couldn’t happen but I can give you a 100 percent guarantee that we are going to do everything humanely possible to prevent that from happening.”
The industry isn’t a big fan of the term “drone” itself – but most of the alternatives it’s mustered so far are a confusing mishmash of acronyms: UASs, UAVs, SUAs, RPAs.
I heard almost all of those Tuesday.
West and many panelists addressed the confusion.
“What should we be calling ourselves as an industry?” West asked during her keynote speech. “I think this is a conversation that really needs to happen. … I don’t have an answer today.”
Business leaders aren’t the only ones frustrated with the delay in FAA regulations.
Jason Miller, a researcher at Cal State Channel Islands, said professors there are eager to use drones to study everything from whales to environmental changes but the lack of clarity from the FAA is hampering them.
Like businesses, universities struggle to get the FAA’s OK to fly drones.
“Until there’s a way forward or until universities are willing to challenge the FAA, innovations will happen underground,” Miller said.
But that hasn’t stopped all universities from testing or using them.
Engineering professor John Kosmatka of UC San Diego detailed several drone-related projects his students have worked on. Perhaps the most surprising one was a partnership with the University of Naples in Italy. Kosmatka said the school worked with the Italian government on a vehicle that would catch polluters in the act.
Things get more complicated stateside. Kosmatka said he and his students frequently must drive to approved flight sites to test their work.
This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – What I Learned Flying a Drone. – and the next in our series – What We Learned About San Diego’s Drone Industry.