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Treggon Owens’ unmanned aerial vehicle rises into the sky in Encinitas. Owens and others see big potential for commercial drones. They must overcome uncertain regulations and privacy concerns. Photo by Jared Whitlock
Treggon Owens’ unmanned aerial vehicle rises into the sky in Encinitas. Owens and others see big potential for commercial drones. They must overcome uncertain regulations and privacy concerns. Photo by Jared Whitlock
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Commercial drone industry looking to fly locally

ENCINITAS — Four propellers whirred, buzzing like the sound of a small swarm of bees.

Encinitas resident Treggon Owens watched his UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) lift off into the air. Soon, the UAV rose 100 feet above Owens, who stood behind the future location of Bull Taco, a stone’s throw north of Encinitas Boulevard and Coast Highway 101.

Although he held a remote in his hands, Owens didn’t have to touch a thing. The UAV — better known as a small drone — followed a preprogrammed route south along the railroad tracks.

Owens watched the UAV’s progress from a monitor attached to a tripod.

“You can imagine this machine delivering a burrito in the not-too-distant future,” Owens said.

For some, the word “drone” conjures up images of missile strikes and war. But to Owens and other early adopters, the growing UAV industry has cutting-edge commercial applications.

“There’s so much potential, whether food delivery or agriculture or surveying the surf,” Owens said.

UAVs don’t just hold promise. They’re already taking off, despite an uncertain regulatory environment.

Owens and other builders just launched Aerial Mob, a company that specializes in UAV parts and aerial cinematography.

During the Surfing Madonna 5/10K last year, Aerial Mob’s camera-equipped UAV zoomed along the coast, shooting striking footage of runners moving across the beach.

Their UAV again took to the skies to capture a unique angle of the Pacific View school site as part of a campaign to stop the property from being auctioned off.

“I’m one garage inventor out of thousands — it’s becoming huge,” Owens said.

Given the number of inventors here, he believes the county could become a hub for UAV manufacturing.

To really open the floodgates, officials across the region will need to adopt small-business tax breaks and establish additional manufacturing space in places like Encinitas where it’s scarce — no easy task, he acknowledged.

On that note, Owens recently met with county Supervisor Dave Roberts to talk about encouraging commercial UAVs.

“What excites me is the potential for small-business growth,” Roberts said, noting he’s looking into ways to bolster the industry.

To get the public’s support, the industry would have to be sensitive to privacy concerns, Roberts said.

Some local groups like Back Country Voices protested when San Diego was being considered for one of six test sites across the nation to develop drones. The organization argued a site would turn the county into a surveillance society.

Ultimately, San Diego was passed up as a site. Commercial and defense companies that produce drones viewed the decision as a lost opportunity to boost the industry.

“Even though we weren’t selected as one of the initial sites, there’s still possibility for the future,” Roberts said, adding the region has drone builders like Northrop Grumman in Rancho Bernardo, a major selling point for a site.

Roberts also noted the Board of Supervisors is looking at ways to incentivize small-business manufacturing in the county. While not tailored specifically to UAV builders, they would stand to benefit.

And Roberts said he’s planning on hosting a Maker’s Fair to show off local inventions. He expects UAVs to play a big role.

The FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) currently predicts as many as 30,000 drones could take to the skies by 2030 in the U.S.

Many are expected to help farmers tend to agriculture, from watering to assessing crop yields.

However, the rate of UAV growth will largely depend on how they’re regulated, said Michael Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, a global consulting company that researches market trends.

“If really strict rules aren’t put in place, I see the market expanding exponentially in the foreseeable future,” Blades said.

Blades said San Diego, in particular, is well positioned to become a commercial drone powerhouse. That’s because prominent commercial drone companies like 3D Robotics, a business that’s raised $36 million in venture capital, already call San Diego home.

The FAA is expected to propose rules to govern unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds later this year, which Congress would ultimately have to approve. Down the line, the agency will recommend rules for larger aircraft.

The agency has to navigate a minefield of issues, with safety being at the forefront, Blades said.

“Whenever a major accident happens, the FAA would open itself up to criticism,” Blades said.

Yet even if stricter rules limit flying, he likened the challenge of tracking illegal UAVs to “swatting at one bee in a swarm.”

“So many unmanned aerial vehicles means it will be difficult to enforce,” Blades said.

For now, the FAA says hobbyists can fly UAVs up to 400 feet, though they must stay away from airports. However, drone flights for commercial purposes are currently prohibited, the agency states.

But last month, a judge dismissed a $10,000 fine the FAA levied against a filmmaker who used a drone to shoot a promotional video. The ruling went on to say the FAA doesn’t have legal authority over commercial drones, causing aerial photographers, surveyors and filmmakers to celebrate.

The FAA, which did not respond to requests for comment, quickly appealed the ruling. The agency argued doing so stayed the judge’s ruling, meaning its flight rules are still in place.

Michael Curran, an Encinitas attorney who represents Aerial Mob and other UAV clients, recently wrote a letter to the FAA stating the recent ruling was further proof the agency doesn’t have the power to regulate UAVs and other small aircraft.

Only Congress can pass such regulations, and it’s yet to do so, Curran said.

And because the FAA has “promulgated total fallacies” about its oversight, the agency has stifled the industry, he added.

“Even though commercial operators are confident they can fly, they have customers, such as movie producers and directors, who don’t want to run afoul of the FAA, so they don’t hire you,” Curran said.

But the UAV industry has to contend with more than the FAA.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and other organizations have expressed reservations with commercial drones.

Following the Internet juggernaut Amazon releasing a futuristic vision for delivery drones several months ago, the ACLU issued a statement saying, in part:

“We presume that Amazon is interested in delivery, not surveillance, and that it wouldn’t be retaining or even capturing video from its delivery vehicles. Nonetheless, others will, and it is in everyone’s interest to pin down solid privacy protections now, so that companies like Amazon can experiment with deployments that could prove useful for all.”

Curran countered that privacy laws that prevent people from spying on residents are already on the books.

Further regulations are likely necessary in the event police drones become common, but shouldn’t be required for commercial operators, he said.

He said UAVs could possibly increase the potential for peeking into neighbors’ homes, but a person willing to go to that length is just as likely to snap photos with a zoom lens.

“If I’m a paparazzi guy, what’s the difference if I’m shooting on a hill with a 400 millimeter lens or I’ve got a drone? I’m getting the same photography,” Curran said.

What’s needed, he said, is a formal licensing process for commercial UAV operators, adding it could further legitimize the industry.

Steve Gebler, an Encinitas UAV and model airplane enthusiast, said the popularity of UAVs has exploded in the past two years.

That’s due to the technology improving and the cost plummeting.

Stripped-down UAVs sell for as low as $550, but the price can double or triple from there, depending if features like cameras are mounted on the aircraft.

Gebler is looking to establish a local chapter of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and find locations in North County for hobbyists to fly model airplanes and other aircraft.

A spot must have a long runway to accommodate model airplanes. Yet that’s something UAVs don’t require, because they can take off and land on smaller patches, he said.

Because radio-controlled aircraft have been around so long, Gebler said they haven’t drawn anywhere as much scrutiny as UAVs.

He drew parallels to UAVs and the early days of cell phones. Privacy concerns were initially raised, but those fell by the wayside after more people ditched landlines and began carrying a cell phone.

“It’s like with any technology — people have to get comfortable with it.”