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David Hernandez, Section 2 SP 15, Spring 2015

San Diego commercial drone companies await FAA regulations for business to soar

Commercial drone companies and proponents are impatient — they have been for a while.

The unmanned aerial vehicle companies in the San Diego region are part of what is considered a burgeoning industry, but they await official regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration to be truly prosperous.

San Diego has been dubbed the hub of the U.S. drone industry, primarily because of two giant manufacturers of military drones for sale in the area: General Atomics and Northrop Grumman.

The region, however, is also home to numerous commercial drone companies. Their primary clients include:

  • Farmers, who use drones to monitor crops
  • Realtors, who use the devices to market and showcase properties
  • Filmmakers, who use them to get innovative shots
  • Law enforcement officials, who use them in search-and-rescue missions or during fires.

The unprecedented uses seem endless, and drone companies are certain local business will take off once they receive clearance.

But for now, commercial drone flights are illegal; the FAA banned them in 2007 to create rules to safety implement the growing number of drones into U.S. airspace.

A drone and protoype from Chula Vista-based Action Drone before the devices were tested in an open field. At the moment commercial drone uses are limited because of an FAA ban.

A drone and protoype from Chula Vista-based Action Drone before the devices were tested in an open field. At the moment commercial drone uses are limited because of an FAA ban.

“There’s a lot of talent here in San Diego, and we know this market is going to continue to grow,” said Jesse Gipe, manager of economic development for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. “Certainly the hold up is not technology, certainly it’s (a lack of) regulations.”

Hobbyists who don’t make money from drones are allowed to fly if they operate the device within 400 feet from the ground, stay away from airports and populated areas, and maintain the drone in sight (learn more at dronepedia.xyz).

In February, the FAA proposed a set of long-awaited regulations that would allow commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds to fly in daylight at less than 100 mph and at a maximum of 500 feet in the air. In addition, the pilot would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical test and obtain an operating certificate.

Most commercial drone users would be able to abide by the regulations, and backers of the industry say the regulations are fair.

“We’ve tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a press release at the time. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

The regulations will likely take about a year to 18 months to be approved.

Multimedia: Darryl Annunciado, CEO of Chula Vista-based Action Drone USA, took his hobby and created a commercial drone company. His company is one of many in the region that is eager to be prosperous.

Meanwhile, in recent years at least 15 San Diego area commercial drone companies or users have received warnings from the FAA for using or testing drones.

Drone advocates understand the FAA’s role is to worry about airspace safety; however, they say the entity is not acting nearly as fast as other countries.

Darryl Anunciado, CEO of the Chula Vista-based Action Drone USA, said about 50 percent of his company’s clients are abroad.

A boost to the economy

The increasing number of companies emerging, as well as their under-the-radar status because of the FAA ban, makes it difficult to know how the drone industry could contribute to the local economy.

Department of Defense contracts for drones contributed about $1.3 billion to the San Diego region during 2011, according to a National University System Institute for Policy report.

While the institute solely analyzed data from the defense industry, Kelly Cunningham, who helped compile the report, said the economy in San Diego would benefit when commercial drones uses are approved.

“The potential economic impacts are huge for San Diego, especially with the head start and expertise already developed here for the military,” she said.

Last year San Diego applied to become home to a national drone testing site but was beat out by six other states the FAA chose.

The agency more recently put out a research grant opportunity to have a university — along with other colleges, drone developers and government agencies such as NASA and the Department of Defense — study how to best integrate drones into airspace. The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., a key group that coordinated the effort in California, wanted UC San Diego to be the lead university of the research. UC Berkeley took the spot, but UC San Diego will remain a part of the project. The FAA will announce the grant recipient in mid-May, Gipe said.

Meanwhile, The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. is in the last stages of receiving funding for an aerospace study in partnership with its sister organization in Los Angeles that will in part look into the drone industry in San Diego and Southern California. Gipe said the study is expected to be released in June.

Concerns about drones  

Privacy issues pose perhaps the greatest setbacks for the industry and its future. The camera-equipped devices, which can be operated from a distance, lead people to believe they could be spied on or photographed without their knowledge.

The San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, San Diego Veterans for Peace, the Peace Resource Center of San Diego have led anti-drone movements and hosted events to create awareness about the topic.

Several state legislative measures, including one from the San Diego area, address the issue.

Assemblywoman Marie Waldron of Escondido co-authored a bill signed into law last year that makes it illegal to invade a person’s privacy and take pictures with a drone.

Waldron introduced a bill in December that would create a task force to study the industry needs and create regulations for California by January 2018.

Two other new bills aim to limit law enforcement’s use of drones by requiring officials to obtain a warrant before using a drone for surveillance except in emergencies. A similar bill last year was approved by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Gipe understands privacy concerns, but said drones don’t pose as great of a threat to privacy as other aspects of our daily life that we have adapted to.

“I would suggest that the Internet has been the single biggest invasion of privacy of our time,” he said.

Another prominent concern is safety. Because the devices can be operated without being in the line of sight, and into the airspace, people fear the devices could crash or obstruct airspace.

Gipe said technological challenges include securing the devices so they’re not hacked or crashed, but these are not “strong setbacks”

“We don’t not build tanks because we’re afraid tanks are going to be used against us,” he said.

Annunciado believes people’s fears will be appeased once the FAA approves commercial use and the devices become more common. Unlike other companies and enthusiasts who prefer the term unmanned aerial vehicles, Annunciado chose Action Drone as his company’s name in part to fight the stigma. He’s convinced the positive benefits associated with commercial drones such as the ones his company produces are endless.

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About David Hernandez

I'm a San Diego State journalism senior.

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