Drone Industry Boosters Pilot Controversial Local Growth Plan

By David Wagner
April 02, 2013

Controversial Drone Industry Growing in San Diego

When it comes to the controversial unmanned aircraft known as drones, business is booming. And that could mean scores of new jobs for San Diego. But privacy defenders say that courting the drone industry could cost us our civil liberties. KPBS Science and Technology reporter David Wagner spoke with both aides of the local drone debate for a look at San Diego's pilot-free future.
When it comes to the controversial unmanned aircraft known as drones, business is booming. That could mean scores of new jobs for San Diego, but privacy defenders say courting the drone industry could cost us our civil liberties.

Imagining swarms of drones hovering over most of Southern California makes a lot of residents uneasy, but that's exactly what Sean Barr of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation hopes to see.

Barr has been working with a coalition of local defense industry advocates to brand San Diego as the drone capital of the world. To ensure that drone makers put down stakes in San Diego, Barr and his allies are trying to convince the FAA to base a lucrative drone test site here. The range they're envisioning would be expansive.

"It extends from the China Lake Edwards Air Force Base area West to the ocean, South to the Mexican border, and East to the Arizona border," said Barr, Vice President of Economic Development for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation.

U.S. Marines
A coalition of local defense industry advocates hope to brand San Diego as the drone capital of the world.

When people like Dave Patterson of San Diego Veterans for Peace hear about Barr's plans, they don't picture a new economic golden age. They foresee an Orwellian police state.

Considering the proposed test site, Patterson wondered, "If they're gonna fly 10,000 drones around Southern California, what are they going to do with all that surveillance information?"

Bearing these concerns in mind, Barr and his allies remain focused on securing jobs for San Diego. Similar drone industry development efforts have been hatched in Nevada. And in Oklahoma, North Dakota, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts ... the FAA has received more than 50 test range proposals since February.

But Barr thinks San Diego can beat the competition. He estimates that about 7,000 local jobs are already dedicated to drones. San Diego also boasts ideal weather for year-round flight testing and a large military presence. With law enforcement, scientists, and farmers all coveting this technology, Barr thinks San Diego's drone economy is poised to double within this decade, saying, "There is an opportunity for it to grow significantly."

Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., also sees that opportunity. His district relies on jobs tied to two of the world's biggest drone developers — Northrop Grumman and General Atomics. "Everybody is going to be looking to you to see what's the next thing," Hunter told a crowd of Northrop Grumman employees during a recent visit to the company's Rancho Bernardo facilities.

David Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, is certainly looking out for the next thing in drone technology. But he's troubled by what he's seeing. He argues that drones aren't properly regulated yet, threatening our privacy, civil liberties, and even our lives.

"We have very serious concerns about the government targeting American citizens for killing far from the battlefield without any form of due process at all," Loy said.

Loy could be alluding to a 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a suspected al-Qaeda recruiter who also happened to be an American citizen. The ACLU cautions that these targeted killings, reportedly responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths in the Middle East, set a dangerous precedent.

Even local drone industry boosters like Hunter worry about this technology, saying that lawmakers urgently need to discuss the legal limits of drone use.

"Part of being American is being able to do what you want to do without people looking at you or questioning you," he said. "Yes, it's going to be good for jobs. It could be steps forward in the way we handle wildfires and the way we have police chases. But the downsides when it comes to privacy are fairly great."

San Diego Veterans for Peace have been protesting outside a General Atomics facility in Poway every week for the past seven months. "Our fourth and fifth amendment rights are going to go up in a cloud of drones, if we're not careful," warned Patterson.

Despite these concerns, Barr's economic development coalition says drone jobs are coming to the U.S. no matter what, and San Diego should be the region to reap the economic rewards. Loy, however, thinks that focusing on where drones are made is beside the point. "Wherever the drones are manufactured," he said, "the issue is how are they being used."