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In SD, Drone-Makers Are Mysterious Even to Industry Insiders

San Diego boosters often say the region is a major center for unmanned systems. Still, no one seems to know just how many companies here work on drones, or how much money they pump into the local economy.

The drone industry has always conjured mystery – covert raids and secretive government entities come to mind.

But in San Diego, the enigma extends to even some simple, mundane facts about the drone industry. Like just how many local companies with ties to drones exist here. Or how much they’re pumping into the local economy.

Monica England, who helps lead a local group trying to rally the drone industry here, estimates more than 50 drone-tied companies have a significant footprint in our region and that at least 40 percent of them didn’t exist two years ago.

But England, who’s affiliated with the San Diego Lindbergh chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, acknowledged there are probably many businesses she doesn’t know about and said she doesn’t have a clear sense of just how much drone-related work some of the ones she is aware of are doing.

Several business executives and leaders also said they couldn’t pinpoint many of those details.

The only solid data that exists is a two-year-old National University study that found military drone companies, mostly General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman, drew at least $1.3 billion in Department of Defense contracts to the region in 2011.

The industry has shifted significantly since the National University study. Some businesses – including General Atomics and Northrop Grumman – are starting to see smaller orders from the feds but the buzz about commercial uses for drones has hit an all-time high. Meanwhile, hobbyists are increasingly flying camera-toting drones and businesses across the country have sprouted up to cater to both enthusiasts and potential commercial users.

There are a few reasons why the full picture of the local drone industry remains fuzzy.

Philip Odegard, who owns a drone photography business based in Rancho Bernardo, offers a window into why.

Odegard started his company, fittingly named Aerial, about six months ago. The professional photographer has signed on 12 contract workers to fly drones and collect footage for real estate agents, an Escondido winery and various other customers.

He’s solely relying on word of mouth and social media posts of his company’s work to advertise. He hasn’t contacted local business groups, nor was he aware of the local AUVSI chapter.

Fellow drone business owners say Odegard’s experience isn’t unusual.  Many newer startups are relatively small and aren’t yet plugged into traditional business networking groups. They often get to know others in their industry through hobbyist forums or unscheduled encounters rather than formal gatherings, if at all. This makes it more difficult for conventional business groups to keep tabs on them, or to even learn of their existence.

Indeed, Odegard has focused far more on ensuring his offerings are innovative than on networking – and he’s convinced he must. Odegard previously lived in the Bay area where he befriended tech entrepreneurs and watched many startups quickly dissolve.

He thinks the drone industry is innovating and growing even more rapidly.

“It’s faster than everything I’ve ever seen,” Odegard said. “Every day, there are new people popping up.”

That pace makes the industry even more difficult to follow.

Another challenge is keeping some local drone companies silent.

The FAA essentially banned commercial drone flights in 2007, and though an administrative law judge recently overturned a $10,000 fine levied against an aerial photographer in Virginia, the rules remain murky.

Some drone businesses have decided it’s best to keep quiet until the FAA issues formal regulations.

Gus Calderon, who owns Carlsbad-based IsisCopter and builds airframes for drones, said many customers who plan to use drones for work – and companies that may be interested in eventually using them – aren’t advertising that much.

“Most of them are doing it undercover,” Calderon said. “They don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing.”

Some companies avoid explicitly describing their work on their websites, while others simply rely on friends and customers to spread the word about their services.

These covert business models complicate local boosters’ efforts to tally up the drone industry’s economic impact.

And because the industry is still relatively nascent, there aren’t many specific government classifications for unmanned systems companies, a tool that helps economists study other industries.

The dearth of solid details may have been one of a handful of factors that stymied last year’s failed regional push to become an FAA test site for drones.

Inadequate political support at least contributed to the sunken bid, and though there were many reasons some elected leaders weren’t enthusiastic about it, a scarcity of statistics about the local industry couldn’t have helped.

Advocates couldn’t answer elected leaders’ questions about the total number of jobs tied to San Diego’s drone industry, for example.

Business leaders recently decided they must seek out those numbers so they don’t miss out on other opportunities.

The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. is organizing a survey of drone companies in the San Diego area, and perhaps other parts of Southern California, over the next couple months and plans to produce a study that reveals the industry’s footprint here. It’s likely to be unveiled sometime this fall.

Matt Sanford of the Economic Development Corp., who is helping coordinate the effort, said anecdotes and one-on-one business dealings have persuaded those who follow it closely that it’s prominent here.

He understands that isn’t enough to satisfy most San Diegans.

“We want to be able to back it up with data,” Sanford said.

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – Why Firefighters Aren’t Using Drones to View the Blazes – Yet – and the next in our series – What We Know About San Diego’s Drone Industry.

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