San Diego’s been dubbed the “hub of the U.S. drone industry.” For our next quest, we want to take a closer look.

Quest in article logoTwo leading corporate players – General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman – as well as several smaller companies are based here. And a National University System study that found that Department of Defense contracts for unmanned devices alone contributed at least $1.3 billion to the regional economy in 2011.

But as you might expect from devices that can fly unencumbered, record people’s actions and complete tasks as adorable as delivering a wedding ring and as grim as carrying out covert strikes on foreign targets, there’s plenty of controversy and outrage that could shape the industry’s future here.

Yet analysts mostly believe San Diego’s drone industry will continue to grow and that drones – also called unmanned aerial vehicles – will be used for more and more commercial endeavors in the future.

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The industry is facing a key turning point.

The Federal Aviation Administration is set to release regulatory guidelines that will open up big money-making possibilities for commercial drone manufacturers, a process slowed by fears that the camera-toting technology will violate Americans’ privacy rights. Meanwhile, a national industry group predicts California alone will see thousands more jobs and billions of dollars in direct economic impacts in the decade after the FAA gives commercial drone use the official go-ahead.

Both the possibilities and the current reality of the industry raise big economic and moral questions for San Diego residents, who stand to benefit from their success and also to be hampered by it in the form of intrusive spying or malfunction-caused injuries.

How big is San Diego’s drone footprint, anyway? How many companies in our region play some role in unmanned systems technology – whether for military purposes or for commercial uses? How are drones already being used here? Is San Diego’s drone industry sustainable, and are there needs that aren’t being met, particularly at area universities? How are local boosters positioning our region for commercial drones’ market launch? What are the specific privacy concerns that could stymie those efforts, and are there ways to address them? And are San Diegans inclined to support both government and commercial uses of drones?

I’m going to try to answer some of these questions over the next several weeks, and I hope you’ll suggest some others for me to tackle, too.

Sara Libby, VOSD’s managing editor, recently came up with a good way to understand these reporting quests: They’re less like a scripted play – written and rehearsed in advance, and rolled out in controlled acts – and more like improv performances, which are partly shaped by audience feedback and the cast’s own dynamics. You play a role in this reporting journey I’m about to embark on.

I want to focus on San Diego’s slice of the drone industry and the economic and moral quandaries specifically tied to this region, and I’ll be seeking your suggestions on which angles to follow along the way.

So let’s get started: What do you want to know about San Diego’s drone industry? Do your views on military and commercial uses differ? What are your concerns about future use of drones and their development here?

Please add your thoughts in the comment section or email me directly at

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the next story – The Drone Industry’s Ready to Take Off: Required Reading.

    This article relates to: News, Quest, Quest: Drones, Share

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    San Diego “Drone Days of Action”

    May 15-17, 2014

    Join us in San Diego, May 15, 16 and 17, 2014

    for action and education against US global drone wars, and domestic drone civil liberties violations

    San Diego continues to be a US capital of spying and killer drone production

    Stand Up and Speak Out!

    THIS IS YOUR OPPORTUNITY, following last years No Drones Days in April, to be a part of moving this nation away from mechanized warfare and military empire, toward a better future!

    In addition to drone use in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, we will examine President Obama's 'pivot' into the Asia-Pacific, where the United States has already sold and deployed drones in the vanguard of a shift of 60% of its total military assets to try to control China and to enforce the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership. We will show, among other things, how this surge of 'pivot' forces, greatly enabled by drones, and supported by the U.S. Military-industrial complex, will hit every American community with even deeper cuts in the already fragile social program on which people rely for survival. In short, we will connect drones and militarization with 'austerity' in America."

    For more info/action updates:


    Thursday May 15

    • 4-7 PM – San Diego Veterans for Peace Demonstration: Federal Building, Front and Broadway, downtown San Diego; Street Theater staged aerial “drone attack” by Artful Activist San Diego Street theater FB page:

    • 8 PM – 9:30 PM – Overpass Light Brigade, light/sign demonstration at Clairemont Drive overpass at I-5 freeway

    Friday May 16

    • 8 – 10 AM – Demonstration, including street theater against drones, Northrop Grumman, 9326 Spectrum Center Blvd. and Ruffin Road, San Diego 92123

    Saturday May 17

    • 9:30 AM – 2 PM – Stop the Drones Convergence! Registration 9:30 AM; 10 AM – 2 PM: Issues panel, break-out groups to discuss and plan NEXT STEPS! First Church of the Brethren, 3850 Westgate Place, SD 92105

    2014 Anti-Drone Days of Action is a collaborative action of:

    San Diego Coalition for Peace & Justice; Peace Resource Center of San Diego; Veterans for Peace San Diego Chapter; San Diego Overpass Light Brigade; Women Occupy San Diego (WOSD); Occupy San Diego; Artful Activist San Diego; Canvass for a Cause (CFAC); Back Country Voices; San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME); San Diego BDS; United Against Police Terror San Diego; Green Party of San Diego; Code Pink (Contact us if your group would like to be a sponsor).

    JLDodd subscriber

    the drones I know here are mostly public labor union officials…jim

    SecASNE subscriber

    Drones bring about a new level of invasion of privacy and violate the air space above property.  Of course the business driven optimist will lobby changes to the current laws to accomodate the new drone industries headed overseas when fully implimented, and we will be stuck with yet another comprimise of our own quality of life.  But I prefer answers to whinning, so.....  Air Space Use tax to compensate the loss of Real Estate Value and supplement home owner taxation, and....require identification reporting, and

    insurance coverage for fires/deaths/losses being caused by drones, a noise, weight, hours of operation, and area of use limit.    But all this requires advanced planning and consideration ahead of abuses...oh well.

    juliehocking subscribermember

    Lisa, Did you see this LA Times article? I agree with the concerns of the rangers. Hate to think of drones ruining a peaceful experience in San Diego's regions...

    I thought you'd like this:

    Illegal drones ruining Yosemite's natural beauty, rangers say
    Yosemite National Park issued a warning Friday, and it didn't have to do with bears or hazardous park conditions. The new concern: Unmanned drone aircraft.

    Only The Truth
    Only The Truth subscriber

    What would be interesting would be a description of photo privacy laws related to pictures/photos/video taken from MANNED aircraft and MANNED helicopters. Also a description of privacy laws related to pictures/photos/video taken by individuals in public areas. I assume that the laws for pictures/photos/video taken from UAVs will soon be similar.

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    I would be interested in the entire eco-system / supply chain regarding the design, testing and building of unmanned aircraft.    

    Do we have the supply chain to make San Diego a true hub of an industry?  If not; where are the parts coming from?  Where are the designers?  And lastly, who else besides the DOD, are the big customers? 

    Mel Shapiro
    Mel Shapiro subscribermember

    Reply  to cheap overseas labor-tariffs

    mberry202 subscriber

    While San Diego may not lead the way in aircraft manufacturing, they do lead the way in the design and development  effort and playing host to the organizations that fund these efforts. 

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    The 2009 U.S. Army Sustainability Report lists several threats to national security, which include severe income disparity, poverty, and climate change. The report tells us: “The Army is facing several global challenges to sustainability that create a volatile security environment with an increased potential for conflict . . . Globalization’s increased interdependence and connectivity has led to greater disparities in wealth, which foster conditions that can lead to conflict . . . Population growth and poverty; the poor in fast-growing urban areas are especially vulnerable to antigovernment and radical ideologies . . . Climate change and natural disasters strain already limited resources, increasing the potential for humanitarian crises and population migrations.”

    The U.S. Military recognizes the problems which present the greatest threats to national security -- but the response of U.S. policymakers is not to address the causes of these threats, but to prepare militarily for the conflict that will arise from them. According to a study conducted by Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, an economy focused on peaceful priorities would employ many more Americans than an economy that wages war. In their study they said: “This study focuses on the employment effects of military spending versus alternative domestic spending priorities, in particular investments in clean energy, health care and education . . . We show that investments in clean energy, health care and education create a much larger number of jobs across all pay ranges, including mid-range jobs and high-paying jobs. Channeling funds into clean energy, health care and education in an effective way will therefore create significantly greater opportunities for decent employment throughout the U.S. economy than spending the same amount of funds with the military.”

    michael-leonard subscriber

    "...moral questions for San Diego residents,"

    Lisa, you used the word moral when you meant ethical. That caused Mr. Bradshaw's comment Please be more accurate in your reporting.

    "... to be hampered by it in the form of intrusive spying ... "

    "...fears that the camera-toting technology will violate Americans’ privacy rights."

    Unless GA is working on drones that can carry devices able to see through walls, there are NO concerns about either of these. When we are in public, we are open to all and any observation, whether by human  or mechanical eyes. Please be more accurate in your reporting.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Uhhhh ... Remember the 4th Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure?

    michael-leonard subscriber

    So, are they making drones with tiny grabbing hands?

    Look, UAVs are just a TOOL; they hafta have a human operator. The tool itself doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment.

    And anyway, Lisa's text -- as I quoted -- only mentioned spying and privacy; this is another topic entirely.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    @michael-leonard "Search" doesn't require hands when you have technology that allows you to zoom in from all sorts of angles not available to conventional forces.  Yeah -- drones don't surveill nor kill/maim people, People do.  That's the thing about technology -- what WE do with it, which is the essential nature of Lisa's quest.  It's why this is ALL about civil liberties, morality and ethics. 

    michael-leonard subscriber

    And how does an airborne platform make the search or viewing unreasonable? A person atop a structure with binoculars would accomplish the same thing.

    Again, my point is that an advanced tool for surveillance does not make that surveillance suddenly unconstitutional.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    San Diego’s other “hot” industry is craft beer.  Well, I don’t drink beer; in fact I think it’s immoral.  Let’s have a debate on whether craft breweries should be shut down.

Seriously, can’t we just analyze the future of the drone industry as a business without all the hand wringing about possible misuses of the birds?

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @Bill Bradshaw  Thanks for your comment, Bill. I don't think all my quests will include a moral component but I don't think I can write about drones without addressing the ethical questions surrounding them. Those quandaries could affect the industry's future here and elsewhere.

    Jeremy Ogul
    Jeremy Ogul subscribermember

    @Bill Bradshaw  @Lisa HalverstadtEthical questions about beer and alcohol have mostly been settled, through the temperance movement, prohibition, the 21st Amendment and the campaigns to raise the legal drinking age to 21 in every state. Ethical questions about drones, on the other hand, are far from settled, and the answers will have a huge impact on the future of the drone industry as a business.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    @Bill BradshawThat's the thing about technology -- what WE do with it, which is the essential nature of Lisa's quest.  It's why this is ALL about civil liberties, morality and ethics. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Safety, privacy, noise pollution and licensing requirements would be my interest.

    Timely topic choice Lisa.

    Friend of mines son has one he uses to take photos of surfers. This is going to gain in popularity quickly

    Bob Hudson
    Bob Hudson subscriber

    "analysts mostly believe San Diego’s drone industry will continue to grow..."

    San Diego's drone research sector may grow, but the last few decades have taught us that California and San Diego are not going to get the future large-scale production facilities and those rosy predictions of "thousands more jobs and billions of dollars in direct economic impacts..." for California ignore the reality of California's business climate and real estate and development costs.  If anything, what production is now in California will likely head east as the industry grows and we'll have even less economic impact than we do now.  Those predicted good jobs will be created in places such as Arizona, Texas and Kansas, where the Wichita area has a long history as a major aircraft production center with an intact infrastructure, unike San Diego where production plants have been demolished to create rental car lots to help support to the very low paid jobs in the tourism industry. We've chosen to become the Miami Beach of the west, not a manufacturing center.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Jim Jones And the NIMBY homeowner cartels can be blamed for keeping those businesses away.

    Bob Hudson
    Bob Hudson subscriber

    @Jim Jones @Bob Hudson  

    Southern California has not been a center of aircraft manufacturing for decades: we had some companies hang on, producing components for aircraft assembled elsewhere. Meanwhile places like Wichita, Kansas still make airplanes, have lots of areospace plants available for conversion and expansion and are in the midst of the agricultural areas where UAV usage will grow rapidly once the FAA clarifies the rules (is that an oxymoron, a government agency clarifying rules?) 

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    Lisa, be sure to cover one of the biggest market places - agricultural.  Easy to forget living here in a semi-arid desert but there is a LOT of aviation in modern ag in respect to crop dusting and other applications.  Drones would do much more cheaply and with much greater precision/safety.

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @Erik Bruvold  Thanks for the suggestion, Erik. A few folks I've talked to have mentioned this angle and I definitely plan to explore it. 

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    @Lisa Halverstadt @Erik Bruvold  Be a good reason to get the coverage out to Imperial - if only to cover just how much aviation is out there (and how drones could be one of those disruptive technologies).

    PtlomaRDT subscriber

    While indeed a serious subject matter, too bad we didn't have a few more around the Mayor's office last year! They could have paid for themselves

    Donald Kimball
    Donald Kimball subscribermember

    I am a researcher and lab manager at UCSD. My student group made our 1st UAV, the CalMesh Condor,  in year 2007 to provide a WiFi hotspot in the sky with a cellular 1xEV-DO back-haul for back-country emergency responders. The high progress and  low prices in just the past 7 years has been tremendous. Note, electric battery powered quad-copters only have a 6-18 minute flight time, but our 6ft wingspan electric motor-glider could stay aloft for along as the sun was shining (e.g. thermals). The majority of privacy problems will continue to be cell phone and security audio-video recorders. 

    First, the military drones have ushered in a re-discovered practice of spy and saboteur leadership assassination that causes me grave concerns. Second, are the liability issues of drones falling out of the sky, especially due to electromagnetic interference.

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @Donald Kimball  Thanks for your comment, Donald. I'd be interested in chatting with you about what you mentioned here sometime soon. Be on the lookout for an email from me.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    Interesting topic. I really look forward to facts Lisa uncovers. I'm most interested in how the tech is jumping from military to govt to business to consumer. I read stories like Amazon considering drone delivery and I wonder how practical that is. It would be great to hear from industry experts on this topic.

    I'm puzzled by "is San Diego’s drone industry sustainable?" What the heck does that mean. Is VOSD sustainable? Am I sustainable? That's just silly politically correct speech that leaches into discourse diluting it down.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    I was hangin' out at Blacks Beach yesterday when a mini-UAV came cruisin' down the shoreline. It stopped and hovered directly above me. I yelled, "It's impolite to stare! Why don't you just take a picture!?" Then, I saw a flash and heard a click. The UAV flew off.


    Normally not a Poser