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San Diego Fails To Secure Drone Test Site

Since 2005, the federal government has awarded at least $12 billion in contra...

Credit: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Above: Since 2005, the federal government has awarded at least $12 billion in contracts for drones and drone supplies and maintenance. That includes at least $270 million for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's drone program.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies.

Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, the agency said. California did not make the cut.

San Diego drone industry advocates had pushed the FAA to establish a test site in Southern California, arguing that it would bring as many as 18,000 thousand jobs and 90 billion dollars to the state's existing drone economy.

Mark Cafferty of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation had been hoping regulators would see the state's potential.

"We're disappointed," Cafferty said. "It definitely presents a loss for San Diego. It presents a loss for the California economy."

But the idea of drones soaring over most of Southern California put many locals on edge. Dave Patterson of San Diego Veterans for Peace is among those concerned about privacy protections, fire hazards, and the use of drones in overseas wars. He says he's thrilled about the FAA's decision.

"No-drone groups have a lot to celebrate this year," Patterson said. "It's a nice gift. It's just one less thing we have to worry about here."

Drones mainly have been used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the market. Many universities are starting or expanding drone programs.

"These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

The FAA said when selecting the sites it considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, aviation experience and risk.

In the case of Alaska, the FAA cited a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones. New York's site at Griffiss International Airport will look into integrating drones into the congested northeast airspace.

The state of North Dakota already has committed $5 million to the venture and named a former state Air National Guard Commander as its test site director.

The FAA does not allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede the project may take longer than expected. The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to American airspace.

"Safety continues to be our first priority as we move forward with integrating unmanned systems into U.S. airspace," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "We have successfully brought new technology into the nation's aviation system for more than 50 years, and I have no doubt we will do the same with unmanned aircraft."

An industry-commissioned study has predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens drone restrictions on U.S. skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.

Representatives from winning states were jubilant about the FAA announcement.

"This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy," U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said.

The growing drone industry has critics among conservatives and liberals.

Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to "a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities," the American Civil Liberties Union declared in a report last December.

Patterson says the FAA's decision doesn't address all the concerns protesters have about drones. San Diego Veterans for Peace will continue protesting outside the facilities of local drone manufacturers like General Atomics.

"We're going to be out there Thursday at Scripps Poway Parkway and Stowe Drive," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."


Associated Press writer Dave Kolpack in Fargo, N.D., contributed to this report.

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