Ventura County’s bid to become a Federal Aviation Administration test area for unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, came up short on Dec. 30, when the FAA announced that six other states had finished first in a competition that attracted 25 applicants.
Although details were a bit sketchy, it appears the winning states offered a combination of technological expertise or geographic diversity. An airport in upstate New York, for example, offered to research collision avoidance systems in the crowded Northeast corridor. The University of Alaska teamed with Hawaii and Oregon locations to study UAV operations in diverse climates.
It may also be true that California’s bid was hampered by a lack of enthusiasm from the governor’s office, which never really found a way to choose between competing applications from Ventura County and Lancaster and instead urged the two groups to collaborate. Although UC Santa Barbara was supportive of the Ventura County application, after looking at the winning entries, our guess is that an application led by UCSB and CalTech or other University of California campuses might have been more competitive.
We also think that while the FAA designation might have been a public relations coup for the county and would have supported agencies such as the Ventura County Economic Development Association and others, billions of dollars and thousands of jobs related to unmanned systems will continue to flow through our private sector in the form of funding for advanced sensors and development of new drones by AeroVironment in Simi Valley, a handful of regional startups and a few companies that are still in the idea stage.
It is a political fact of life that in a solidly blue state such as California, winning a competition for a drone test site is going to require a more competitive application than in a swing state such as Virginia or a swing area such as upstate New York. It is also true that as influential as California’s congressional delegation might be, it will be tough to match the clout of Nevada, home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A final factor may have been the anti-drone pushback that’s beginning to happen in the state Legislature and among privacy advocates — the FAA clearly wanted as wide a field as possible for experimentation in selecting test sites.
Industry trade groups put the overall impact of drones at $82 billion over the next decade, with some 100,000 jobs at stake. Not getting the test site designation will be a bitter pill to swallow for those who wanted Ventura County to win, but there is still a lot of opportunity for the region to get in on the UAV game.