What We Know About San Diego's Drone Industry - Voice of San Diego

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What We Know About San Diego's Drone Industry

There’s a dearth of basic details on the scope of San Diego’s drone industry but there are a few key facts we already know.

Drones deliver hundreds of paychecks in the San Diego region.

A significant cluster of local jobs is directly tied to defense-oriented drones, though an explosion of interest in smaller models for hobbyists and other businesses has likely significantly ratcheted up the number of drone-tied jobs in recent years.

Then there are the many companies that supply a specific drone-related service.

Much about the scope of the industry remains under the radar but these are a few of the key facts about San Diego’s drone industry that have already been fleshed out.

Here’s a review of what we know.

More than 2,000 jobs in the region, mostly in North County, were directly tied to defense-oriented drones as of 2011.

A two-year-old National University study focused on the region’s military drone makers and relied on Department of Defense contracts to assess their impact here.

The review concluded aerial drone companies alone provided 2,052 jobs and estimated that another roughly 2,400 were indirectly tied to the industry.

A National University researcher also found that drone companies, particularly big-time military contractors Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, drew at least $1.3 billion in drone-related federal contracts to the region in 2011 alone.

But these numbers are now considered antiquated.

The study only focused on defense contracts and many drone sellers, parts suppliers and consultants not tied to military users have likely opened up shop in the past couple years, presumably adding many more jobs and amplifying their economic impact.

Local boosters hope to get more updated numbers soon. The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. is leading an effort to survey drone companies in San Diego, and perhaps other parts of Southern California, to assess the industry’s current footprint.

San Diego houses more suppliers and related businesses than companies whose primary focus is building drones en masse.

Monica England helps lead the San Diego-Lindbergh chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group that aims to promote the drone industry. She said the majority of the region’s drone businesses actually don’t build them.

They sell or produce parts of a drone, work on global positioning or other technological functions or sell already assembled drones and give newbies tutorials.

Drones aren’t simple off-the-shelf products and San Diego’s industry reflects that, England said. “One product has a lot of different components to it.”

Examples of companies in this category include Go Professional Cases of Kearny Mesa, which sells custom drone cases, and ViaSat of Carlsbad, which produces digital communication tools.

Other businesses dabble in a bit of everything.

Innov8tive Designs in Vista is one example. The company sells parts for electric-powered drones and ready-to-fly drones for aerial photography. Owner Lucien Miller said his customers range from hobbyists to NASA.

Several big defense-oriented companies play some role in the industry.

San Diego is a major hub for defense contractors and at least a handful have experimented with or developed a tool that’s helpful to military drones.

The full scope of their involvement is difficult to gauge, though, given a lack of specifics in federal spending databases and the likelihood that many programs with drone ties are classified.

Science Applications International Corporation, a company with a major presence in San Diego, has received dozens of Department of Defense contracts. At least some have been for weaponized and underwater drones.

Other big defense firms with a San Diego footprint, including Kratos Defense & Security Solutions and the Raytheon Company, have also both played some role in drone development.

Other San Diego firms are quietly mulling joining the industry or deploying drones for business purposes.

Industry insiders say many more San Diego companies are waiting in the wings while the FAA weighs formal regulations for commercial drone flights.

Gus Calderon, a Carlsbad-based business owner who does both drone development and consulting work, said many companies are exploring their potential role in the industry or ways they can use drones for their businesses.

“They may be developing or testing this technology for their own use,” Calderon said. “They may be doing this in-house where they may have hired a consultant such as myself to help them at least learn about the technology.”

Calderon declined to elaborate on companies that have approached him.

Mike Hennig, a former San Diego State researcher who now does drone-related consulting work, said he knows of a handful of local entrepreneurs who are eager to officially launch their companies.

“There are a tremendous amount of smaller business aspects and small business ideas floating inside of San Diego,” Hennig said. “There are some very, very smart people doing it at a garage level that are being stifled by the current policies.”

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – In SD, Drone-Makers Are Mysterious Even to Industry Insiders – and the next in our series – San Diego’s Second Chance at Drone Domination.

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