An Oct. 5 announcement about drone operations near Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster demonstrates the promise and risk in what could be the next aerospace boom in Southern California.
In an operation co-funded by NASA and the Pentagon’s advanced research agency, or DARPA, two Northrop Grumman Global Hawk craft maneuvered within 30 feet of each other with the lead craft successfully operating a refueling hose. Although actual refueling did not take place, the drones demonstrated that such an operation was feasible, setting in place the capability for drones to operate for an almost unlimited period over a specific place.
This largely unheralded activity above the California desert underscores the enormous economic opportunity that drones represent, particularly for the Highway 101 technology corridor. Drone production, research and related activities could become a $22 billion business, produce more than 20,000 jobs, reinvigorate California manufacturing and give the U.S. a crucial competitive edge in the next emerging technology marketplace.
But there are significant hurdles before drones join spy satellites or stealth aircraft — two recent aerospace innovations that were jobs bonanzas for Southern California. Among other things, there will be intense competition for the drone business, there are significant privacy issues to be addressed and it may be years before the commercial use of drones — where the real money is — becomes a reality.
In the region, Ventura County has laid a lot of the groundwork to identify itself as a major player in the drone industry.
Assemblymember Jeff Gorell has been working with colleagues, with business and academic types and with economic development organizations to gather assets and support. He’s also been willing to address privacy issues up front in order to head off expensive litigation that could delay or derail an effort to make Ventura County a hub for the drone business.
He’s not alone. Looking to control costs and make the county more adept at fighting crime and fighting fires, public safety officials want to see Ventura County get behind a push to get on the leading edge of the drone business. Sheriff Geoff Dean is already thinking about how much money would be saved by substituting drones for helicopters to search mountainous areas for missing hikers.
Companies such as Aeroenvironment, which operates a large drone manufacturing facility in Simi Valley, are beginning to plot expansion moves. CSU Channel Islands, located near Naval Base Ventura County, is beginning to look to the naval base as a source of future employment for its graduates.
Indeed, Naval Base Ventura County is at the heart of any effort to push for the county to compete in a coming Federal Aviation Administration request for demonstration areas to test new rules of the road for drones to share civilian airspace. The Naval Base boasts one of the largest uninterrupted test ranges for advanced weapons in the world.
Gorell has teamed up with Assemblyman Steve Bradford, a Democrat who’s district includes many of the aerospace companies clustered around LAX. They are looking into was to provide actual incentives, in the form of an investment tax credit, to drone and drone-related companies.
Also on the table: Public-private partnerships to allow contractors to co-locate facilities for final assembly at the Naval Base, innovative partnerships with CSU Channel Islands for training and using the Triad program developed by Ventura County Economic Development Association, or VCEDA, to launch a drone-centric conference.
Bringing advanced sensor makers such as Teledyne Technologies in Thousand Oaks or Flir Systems and Raytheon in Goleta into the discussion makes a lot of sense to me. Ditto for establishing stronger connections with the engineering programs at UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
• Contact Henry Dubroff at email@example.com.