Monday, Dec 30 2013 05:07 PM

Drone boosters in east Kern want to turn disappointment into success

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Cameron McCullom (not pictured) uses a catapult commonly used to launch drone aircraft to launch a test dummy at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest in this Feb. 21, 2013 file photo.

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They've worked more than two years to turn eastern Kern County and other areas in California into a center for civilian drone research.

But organizers of Cal Unmanned Aerial Systems received some bad news Monday when the Federal Aviation Administration selected six other sites among some two dozen competitors nationwide.

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WASHINGTON -- After a fierce nationwide competition that offers potentially big economic benefits for the winners, six sites were selected Monday for testing of how drones can be more widely used in U.S. airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced the selection of sites in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

California, vying to become the Silicon Valley of robotic aircraft, was among the losers in the 24-state competition.

"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.

In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to draw up rules for incorporating the remotely piloted aircraft in U.S. airspace by 2015.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has estimated that 7,500 small drones could be aloft within five years.

The remotely piloted aircraft could be used for activities such as spotting wildfires, helping police track criminal suspects, scouting film locations and inspecting pipelines.

California was thought to be a favorite in the competition, considering it is home to the nation's major drone makers, such as AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of Poway, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds drones in Palmdale.

Huerta said in a call with reporters that the agency considered factors such as geographic and climatic diversity, availability of ground infrastructure, the type of proposed research, the aviation experience of the applicants and the volume of air traffic near the test sites.

He declined to say what the agency found lacking in the losing bids until FAA officials can meet with the unsuccessful bidders. He said those states not chosen will be debriefed in the coming days.

"Safety continues to be our first priority as we move ahead,'' he said, citing the need to ensure that unmanned aircraft can detect and avoid other aircraft.

Those bidding for the test sites -- in many cases alliances of economic development groups, universities and aerospace companies -- believe that if they land a test site, drone manufacturers will follow. Currently, drones are not allowed to fly in the U.S. except with special permission from the FAA.

The testing comes amid concerns among the public and lawmakers that greater use of drones will violate privacy rights.

Huerta, acknowledging sensitivity to privacy concerns, said the agency will require test-site operators to comply with laws protecting an individual's right to privacy.

Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, called the FAA announcement an "important step toward recognizing the incredible economic and job creation potential this technology brings.''

Huerta said he expects the first test site to begin operating within 180 days.

-- Richard Simon and W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

Despite the setback, organizers say they remain confident that their Inyokern Airport-based effort will play a role in the development of unmanned technology.

"Our reasons for putting CalUAS into existence were good then and they are good now," said Executive Director Eileen Shibley, a former program manager for drone research at the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station who has been involved in the process from its earliest stages.

"We still have the best airspace, the best geographic and climatic diversity and ground infrastructure in place to host this work today," Shibley said in a news release Monday.

"We are a group of technologists and entrepreneurs and we will remain on course with a goal of ushering in a new era of unmanned systems technologies for commercial applications. We are starting with agriculture but are already branching out. We have four tenants at Inyokern, and we have others who have indicated an interest in setting up operations."

Shibley has assembled a team of safety officials, technical experts and entrepreneurs who have already set in motion an incubator for unmanned aviation technology.

Inyokern "will still become a center of commercial development," CalUAS Director of Robotic Farming Jeff Parisse said in the release. "I truly believe the California spirit of self-reliance and our undeniable aerospace history gives us the ability to run this race with unmatched agility and speed."

Kern County's political figures appear willing to help.

"I still believe that CalUAS is the best place in the country for this kind of work," Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said in a statement. "You cannot replicate our geography, climate and intellectual capital any place in the world."

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, state Sen. Jean Fuller, both Republicans from Bakersfield, and Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason each joined the chorus Monday in expressing disappointment in the FAA's decision and support for further efforts.

"Inyokern will sell itself," Gleason said in the release. "It is an undeniable fact that our value and capability cannot be matched anywhere else in the country."

Meanwhile, Shibley said the application process itself was tremendously informative in terms of how her team needs to plan its next steps.

But can it work without the blessing of the FAA?

"We are going to do this the old-fashioned way," Shibley said. "Those of us who have a vision of a future state where unmanned systems are ubiquitous are going to be a part of that future."

-- Staff writer Steven Mayer

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