January 29, 2023
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Ventura County business groups step forward in bid for drone testing



A consortium led by Ventura County has taken the first steps toward filing a formal application to become one of six Federal Aviation Administration-designated areas for testing drones.

That means Ventura County will likely be the official applicant in a nationwide competition that’s expected to be very stiff. Already media reports have suggested that some of the declared front-runners could be an upstate New York consortium, a group based in Florida, and a Colorado group that’s led by the University of Colorado and Colorado State University.

But the regional effort, which counts Ventura County Economic Development Association as its co-leader, can count on strong support from CSU Channel Islands, which hopes to use the drone industry as a springboard to launch new programs, including an engineering degree. It also has on board UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering, which has a long history of innovation in sensors and industries related to drone production. And, according to my sources, California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks will lend decades of public-policy experience to help navigate thorny issues such as privacy.

The key not-so-hidden asset for the group is the Naval Base Ventura County test range, the premier site in the country for launching, testing and driving unmanned vehicles. Federal government organizations aren’t allowed to be applicants for the test designation, but Ventura County is hoping to reap the benefits of a decade-long effort to build cooperative relationships between the base, local government and area employers.

Among those employers is AeroVironment, a leading drone producer that  is technically based in Monrovia but which has large operations in Simi Valley. Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena has been discussing joining the Ventura County bid.

The Ventura County effort is not a slam dunk. The state of California is not out-front on this issue and the Central Coast contestant may face an in-state competing application from an aviation-oriented group based around the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Moreover it is not clear whether this intensely political process will favor purple states such as Florida, Colorado and Virginia over a blue state such as California.

But Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean and other safety officials have gotten enthusiastically behind the idea, particularly because of the cost savings involved if drones rather than humans are used for fire spotting or tracking lost hikers in remote areas. It’s a big county with lots of terrain that isn’t easily reached by humans.

People I’ve talked to about the economic potential for the drone industry in Ventura County and the South Coast think that the sky is literally the limit. Channel Islands President Richard Rush sees training undergraduates for careers in this new technology field as a huge opportunity for his campus, which is located within a few miles of the Naval Base.

And drone makers would like to be able to expand in Southern California, which is why the aerospace industry group AIAA is hosting a major international conference at the Westlake Village Hyatt from March 26-28.

Technically, the Ventura County applicant is likely to be the Airport Authority, headed by Todd McNamee, which oversees the Oxnard and Camarillo airports where there is plenty of opportunity to host a test operations center.

Actually, much of the organizing has been done by VCEDA chief Bill Buratto.

Having a county government with two small airports as lead applicant might seem bit unusual in a competition where the lead organization is more typically going to be a major research university or a statewide economic development agency.

But out-of-the box thinking sometimes carries the day. And with six options up for grabs, a plucky applicant, standing in front of very large organizations that carry a lot of clout, might just stand out in a crowd.

Note: Editor Henry Dubroff is a member of the VCEDA board. Contact him at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.