Ventura County would consider going ahead with opening a drone test site even if it is not one of the six applicants out of 50 nationwide that are selected by the Federal Aviation Administration to lead the way in integrating the unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace.
That was the word from panelists at a policy symposium in Thousand Oaks on March 27 organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Todd McNamee, director of airports for Ventura County, said a 25-member team has drafted a detailed proposal and is working through letters of intent for a shot at one of the coveted sites. In answering a question from an audience of about 160 at Hyatt Westlake Plaza, McNamee said applicants not chosen are not barred from setting up their own site.
“We want to be one of the six,” he said. “If for some reason we’re not, we’re going to look at continuing down the path of being a test site.”
State Sen. Steve Knight, R-Antelope Valley, who chaired the panel discussion, said landing one of the six sites is much preferable because of the synergy that would come as the facility would attract a range of activity by multiple enterprises related to drones. “We do want that synergy,” he said.
McNamee said he expects that the national test sites will be where the most rapid innovation takes place.
Panelist Bill Buratto, president and CEO of the Ventura County Economic Development Association, cited a study released this month that predicts drone integration in the economy will create 70,000 jobs across the nation with an average annual pay of $40,000 in the first three years. California jobs would likely pay more, he said.
According to the study by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, drone activities in California are expected generate $14 billion in economic activity in the first decade, create tax revenues of $82 billion and 18,000 jobs in the state.
Another panelist, CSU Channel Islands President Richard Rush, said the university is eager to work in partnership with private enterprise to advance the drone industry locally.
He said that the university will teach students to use drones as part of a project it has launched with the National Park Service to map and oversee wildlife and natural resources on Santa Rosa Island.
He noted that the university has been offered a drone as a gift. “We’re taking that very seriously, and I hope we’re on the cusp of accepting it,” he said.
Buratto said there is a need to engage the public in a dialogue about privacy rights relating to drone surveillance. The proposed test sites are drafting privacy policies as part of their applications, he said.
A summary of proposed state privacy legislation co-authored by Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, was circulated at the symposium. Among other things, it would bar drone surveillance by law enforcement without a warrant. It would allow surveillance for up to six hours without a warrant if there was an imminent threat to public safety.
The vast majority of drone uses will not collect data related to privacy, Buratto said.
McNamee said a key mission of the six test sites will be to integrate drones into the national air space safely. He said drones now undergo a very restrictive process for approval to fly in unpopulated areas. The task will be to let them fly safely where they need to fly to do the job they are designed to do, he said.
In Ventura County, McNamee said, he envisions working with Navy partners to allow some of the more mature drone models to use restricted range space.
A decision by the FAA on the six sites is due in December, he said, and after that they are expected to be up and running in about 180 days.
[Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 28 with more details from the panelists and to correct the spellings of the names of Jeff Gorell and Bill Buratto.]