The drones are coming
Area officials speak about new local programs, legislation
By Shane Cohn 03/07/2013
The future is finally approaching.
Still no jetpacks or hoverboards, but unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, may soon be flying through Ventura County skies.
The past few weeks have been ripe with news about drones. First, the Navy released a draft environmental assessment to station drone operations at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu. The $74.3 million plan is to base four unmanned, unarmed drones, called Triton Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Point Mugu to “provide continuous maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in support of national defense objectives and policies.”
Just a few days after the Point Mugu news release, Assemblymen Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, and Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, announced on Feb. 27 that they had joint-authored two bills on the growing unmanned aerial vehicle industry. Assembly Bill 1326 is designed to attract drone manufacturing to California by exempting drone makers from having to pay state sales and use taxes, among other exemptions and tax credits. The other bill, Assembly Bill 1327, is designed to protect the privacy rights of Calfornians.
Shortly after the new legislation was announced, sources associated with the Ventura County Sheriff’s department, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said that the Ventura County Sheriff’s department may be devleoping a drone program.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department denied any involvement in such a program, but Capt. Don Aguilar, a public information officer, added, “It doesn’t mean we’re not assessing the needs for it and in what kind of capacity, but we’re not doing anything with that right now.”
Whether or not the sheriff’s department or any other local law enforcement agency is considering drones for police use, Gorell said that drones can be used in a variety of other ways, including for films, agriculture and tracking wildfires.
“Economists have predicted 700 percent growth in the unmanned aerial vehicle industry, mainly around commercial application, in the next six years, and I want to get a lot of that growth in Ventura County,” said Gorell, regarding his drone manufacturing bill. “It’s clean tech, high-tech, middle-class jobs that would do well to bring prosperity to this general region.”
At Point Mugu, the base would also serve as a maintenance center that could support up to four more aircraft. The proposed drone is 48 feet long with a wingspan of 131 feet. The project is expected to bring about an estimated 700 personnel and their families to the region by 2020. The location of the naval base, Gorell said, makes Ventura County a prime hub for drone manufacturing and testing.
“We have a pretty forward-leaning military base here in Ventura County, and they have authority and ability to do what people call public-private partnerships,” said Gorell. “They can make an agreement to allow commercial companies to utilize, not only the air strip at Mugu, but use the 25,000-square-mile secure test-range air space off the coast.”
Because the era of drones is moving from military application to commercial and civil application, Gorell and Bradford’s AB 1327 intends to protect the privacy rights of Californians when it comes to drone activity. Many, including organizations like the America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), fear that without proper legislation, improper drone usage by law enforcement agencies and other public agencies could result in surveillance societies.
“Because it’s an industry that most don’t understand, and read in the paper about how these platforms are utilized in military application, there is natural apprehension,” said Gorell. “So we have a bill to lay out common-sense limits.”
The bill would require reasonable public notice to be provided by agencies intending to deploy unmanned aircraft systems, and footage or data obtained through the use of drone systems under these provisions to be permanently destroyed within 10 days, except to the extent required as evidence of a crime, part of an ongoing investigation of a crime, or for training purposes, or pursuant to an order of a court, the bill says. It would also prohibit a person or agency from using an unmanned aircraft system, or contracting for the use of an unmanned aircraft system, for the purpose of surveillance of another person without that person’s consent. Penalties would be incurred otherwise.
Because the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 calls for integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace system by 2015, many states are now introducing legislation limiting the use of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration gave approval last year to dozens of law enforcement agencies, academic institutions and other agencies to train operators in the use of domestic drones.
The Seattle Police Department began experimenting with a drone program for search and rescue operations and hostage situations. The department purchased two drones with money from a regional Homeland Security grant, but due to widespread public outcry, the department pulled the plug on the program and returned the drones to the manufacturer.
To provide more information to the public, Gorell will be hosting a symposium from March 26 to 28 about the civil applications of the unmanned aerial vehicle industry at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza in Thousand Oaks.