Business, military interests pressing for region to be declared test range for drone aircraft

SAN DIEGO - Business and military interests are pressing for much of Southern California's airspace to be declared a test range for drone aircraft.

The U-T San Diego newspaper and website reported that the boost is coming from the San Diego Military Advisory Council and the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. They report that 7,135 are directly or indirectly employed by drone makers in San Diego County.

The proposed drone test zone would extend from Edwards Air Force Base, just north of Lancaster, west to the Pacific Ocean and south to the Mexican border, U-T San Diego reported.

It is intended to give an economic boost to a cluster of drone manufacturers in San Diego, including Northrup Grumman in Rancho Bernardo and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in Poway, U-T San Diego reported. Northrup Grumman also has a large droneworks near Lancaster.

"It's about job creation," said Sean Barr, who is with the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. "We will see the unmanned systems industry double in the next seven years and San Diego has a unique opportunity to take advantage of that.

The FAA plans to create six test zones in the U.S. as it seeks technology and operational advances to integrate pilotless aircraft into the U.S. airspace.

About 40 applications have been filed from across the country from localities anxious to host the drone test areas.

Barr told 10News why the San Diego location is ideal.

"We have the test ranges here in our region that are really second to none," he said. "You have mountains, you have low and high desert, you have ocean through which you can test these systems and achieve results that one needs that you can't find globally."

The application process is expected to take several months.

The Navy has already announced plans to base unmanned spy planes for international intelligence gathering at Point Mugu, west of Malibu.

10News contacted the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union about drone testing. They say it is a growing national problem.

Jess Jollet, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, released a statement to 10News, which read in part:

"The use of unmanned aircraft to spy on Americans is a growing national problem. Domestic use of drones creates a serious risk of warrantless mass surveillance... Before allowing local law enforcement to acquire and test the latest fad in police technology in our own backyard, the community needs to ask whether the advertised benefits outweigh the costs, particularly to our privacy, and, what safeguards will we put in place."

Barr said, "We understand the concerns that have been expressed in terms of civil liberties. We understand that and appreciate that, but here at the San Diego Regional EDC, we care about job creation and that is the number one priority for us."

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