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State lawmakers weigh competing plans for drone research center

March 14, 2013|By Patrick McGreevy
  • Officials look on after Northrop Grumman Corp. unveiled a drone aircraft for the Navy in Palmdale.
Officials look on after Northrop Grumman Corp. unveiled a drone aircraft… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

California lawmakers are trying to resolve differences over competing proposals to host a research-and-testing center for drone aircraft that would be sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA has called for competing bids to establish six research centers throughout the country to help determine the extent to which non-military drones should be allowed in the U.S. Some officials argue that there should be one unified bid from California.

Ventura County has proposed hosting a facility, while a separate proposal, floated by a group calling itself California Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Cal-UAS), could result in a research center in another part of the state.

The Cal-UAS proposal would center the research and testing at InyoKern Airport with flights operated throughout Southern California, including areas of the high desert and the Sierras.

The Ventura County Economic Development Assn. is touting its proposal as a winner, according to President and Chief Executive Bill Buratto. "This opportunity would be a perfect fit for Ventura County," he said. "We have a high-tech-educated workforce, a great relationship with our Navy bases and an established local connection to the aerospace industry."

The Assembly Select Committee on Aerospace has scheduled a public hearing for next Tuesday to discuss the proposals with the aim of working out a compromise that would have one application submitted from California.

"We think we'd be a lot more competitive if we have one plan for the state," said Eileen Shibley, a spokeswoman for Cal-UAS.

Those getting involved include Assemblyman Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), who noted that federal officials have estimated that the drone industry could be worth $90 billion in economic activity in the next 10 years.

"As a state, we must unify and marshal all resources to compete and ensure that California is a successful applicant or we will lose an opportunity to create jobs and spur innovation," Gorell said Wednesday. "Other competitive states have been setting the resources and groundwork for their FAA UAV applications for months, and we are going to have to work hard to catch up."

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