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Potential Drone Test Site Spurs Concerns In San Diego Back Country

Photo caption:

Photo by Claire Trageser

A model of a drone at the Restore the Fourth protest, July 4, 2013.

San Diego County is on the federal government's list of potential test sites for drones, and while local business leaders are on board, at least one community is opposed.

Julian resident John Raifsnider believes drones have eyes, and wandering ones at that. He worries that if San Diego becomes a test site for the technology, the government might use it to spy on local citizens. He’s also troubled by potential fires if a drone crashes. And he has a slew of questions: What effect will drones hovering over the county have on wildlife? Who will regulate their use?

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to decide this month whether to designate San Diego County as one of six test sites for unmanned aerial systems known as drones. While business groups are elated at the prospect, back country residents are raising concerns.

In Julian, activists with Back Country Voices are hosting a public meeting Wednesday evening aimed at getting answers about safety and privacy issues.

“The purpose of the meeting is to illuminate and educate the public and to let the people know they have a voice,” Raifsnider said.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation views a drone test site designation for the region as a bonanza. The group says the drone industry could inject $90 billion into California’s economy over the next decade, create 18,000 jobs and generate $70 million in tax revenue.

A posting on the organization’s website in October stated that San Diego is a good fit for drone testing.

“Not only do we have one of the most diverse testing sites in the U.S., but we also have a strong private sector that would help support a testing site. Companies such as 3Drobotics, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and 5d robotics provide a well-qualified talent pool to help the sector thrive.”

The organization believes drone technology could be the next big thing since the Internet.

"Much like the Internet is now used for everything on the Earth, unmanned systems have a pretty wide breadth of potential uses," said Matt Sanford, manager of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. "Public safety, surveying natural disasters, power line checks, making agriculture more efficient."

The public meeting in Julian on drone testing will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Julian Town Hall at 2129 Main St.

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Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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