California has the most to gain in terms of jobs and economic development when unmanned aircraft are allowed to operate in U.S. airspace, speakers at a symposium on the commercialization of drones said on Wednesday.
The growth trajectory of innovation favors the state as military spending on drones decreases and commercial applications, such as firefighting and police uses, increases and universities incorporate creating new technology and uses for drones into their curricula.
If California becomes the location of one of six sites the Federal Aviation Administration is establishing for test flights of unmanned aircraft, then it is likely that more industry will locate here, said Todd McNamee, director of airports for Ventura County.
“As we identify landing and recovery (airports within the test site), they may become small hubs of innovation and technology companies will migrate to them as well,” McNamee said.
Ventura County has applied to the FAA to become an unmanned aircraft test site, one of two applications from California. The second application is from Kern County.
McNamee was speaking at a panel discussion at the three-day “Civilian Applications of UAVs: a California Perspective” symposium taking place in Westlake Village. The event was organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Gold Team California, an economic development coalition in Ventura County and the Central Coast.
A report released this month by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group, showed that California stood to gain the most in jobs and economic impact as the use of drones increases in U.S. airspace.
As unmanned aircraft are integrated into national airspace, California could see more than 12,000 jobs associated with the industry by 2017, the study concluded. Washington State was the next highest in terms of jobs with more than 6,000 by 2017, according to the study.
Military use of drones in theaters of war has taken place for more than 10 years. In U.S. airspace, the use of the aircraft is severely restricted even for the testing of the aircraft. The FAA is now preparing to loosen those restrictions so that law enforcement, fire departments, universities and other state and federal agencies can use them.
Southern California is home to many manufacturers of drones and suppliers of components used on the planes. AeroVironment Inc. develops, makes and tests its small unmanned aircraft in Simi Valley. Northrop Grumman Corp. makes its Global Hawk unmanned aircraft at its manufacturing facility in Palmdale.
Northrop drones have been used in Haiti following the earthquake in 2010, in Japan to see into the core of a damaged nuclear power plant following the 2011 earthquake, and in Louisiana to track flooding following Hurricane Ike in 2008, said Janis Pamiljans, vice president and general manager for unmanned air systems at Northrop, during his breakfast address to the more than 150 people in attendance at the symposium.
Expanded use of drones will add value to police and fire departments as they can get better information about the situations they are in, Pamiljans said.
“Don’t put your eyes on the tool; it is the data that comes from the tool,” Pamiljans said. “We are just redeploying this into a solution that puts folks out of harm’s way.”
Bill Buratto, president and chief executive of the Ventura County Economic Development Association, addressed the privacy concerns of drones, issues and violations of Fourth Amendment rights.
Most drone flights are not about collecting data that could invade someone’s privacy but there are still challenges for using the aircraft domestically that need to be addressed to calm fears in the public, Buratto said.
“The industry is very interested in this and it is in its best interest that this gets resolved,” Buratto said.
California is one of about 30 states that has introduced legislation to address privacy issues and put restrictions on how law enforcement can use the aircraft and notifying the public of when it uses aerial surveillance. There are also five pending drone privacy bills in Congress.