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    A Brief Tour of the SoCal Drone Zone

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    It’s not just novice surfers and medi-weed connoisseurs that thrive in Southern California’s impeccably chill weather. The region’s climate and universities, specifically in and around San Diego, are perfectly suited for the research and development of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

    That’s according to Kelly Cunningham, a National Institute for Policy Research economist and lead author of a recent National University System report on the region’s drone boom. The area has long been a hub for aerospace R&D, stretching back to the early 1950s when 15 percent of San Diego’s workforce reported to one of the U.S.’s first big government-contracted drone firms, a company called General Dynamics. Various other local contractors have long held cushy ties with the military, as well. But that’s all changing, and quick.

    From 2001 to 2011, “local aerospace contracts” shot up from $56 million to $2.9 billion. San Diego is far and away the top drone manufacturer and exporter in the States, now, and at it’s heart is North County, which generated some $1.3 billion and well over 7,000 jobs locally last year alone. The kicker: the NUS report goes on to state that the real scope of those figures could be far broader given the myriad classified drone programs kept far, far away from public records.

    “This is a dynamic, growing industry, and San Diego has a big opportunity to take advantage of the expected growth,” Cunningham told the North County Times.

    She’s right. This meteoric growth has positioned UAVs as the single largest wing of the American military defense sector, and is responsible for a burgeoning domestic hobbyist drone movement. I got the chance to see all this first hand last summer while shooting Motherboard’s upcoming documentary, Drone On. It was eye-opening. I got to fly some of these things. I spoke with folks who are building drones, and selling them around the world. And with the global market for surveillance and weaponized unmanned systems estimated to net $12 billion by 2019, it all came with the realization that Southern California is set, for better or worse, to become an even bigger force in the global UAV game than it already is.

    Here’s a quick wide shot of some of the drone zone’s key players.

    Northrop Grumman

    (via Department of Defense)

    This Rancho Bernardo-based military drone behemoth is best known for its Global Hawk, a hulking, high-altitude surveillance drone with high-res hover and stare capabilities of up to 40,000-square miles a day. Northrop currently sells these guys to the U.S. Air Force and Navy, as well as the German Air Force.

    General Atomics

    (via)

    Formerly General Dynamics, this firm is behind so-called “hunter-killer” drones, such as the Predator and the Reaper, pictured above. These systems have become the go-to tools in the U.S.’s shadow wars throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa, and they even patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.

    San Diego State University

    (via)

    SDSU works closely with Northrop, who bequeathed a part of SDSU’s Global Hawk arm in a nod to some of the UAV advancements made by the school’s alumni, staff and students. Over 400 SDSU alums currently work at Northrop.

    Datron World Communications

    There I am, piloting the Scout, the flagship drone in Datron World Communications tactical robotics suite. The Scout is just one example of non-lethal micro drones used for recon, search and rescue, and various other dull, dirty, and dangerous scenarios. You’ve maybe been hearing this hotly-contested “30,000” figure being bandied around – that by 2022, 30,000 drones will be cruising through domestic airspace. Time will tell if that estimation holds. But the truth is that the drones are coming to American skies, and no matter how many, small systems like the Scout will account for the majority of drone traffic.

    AeroVironment

    (via)

    The Monrovia-based UAV house is behind the Raven, a small-scale throw-’n-go reconnaissance glider used by militaries in the U.S., Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Spain, and others. AeroVironment is also behind the kamikaze-style Switchblade drone.

    3DRobotics / DIYDrones

    (via Wired)

    Founded by Wired editor Chris Anderson, self-professed kickstarter of the domestic hobby drone boom, 3D doesn’t actually make drones, per se. The multi-million dollar company, spawned from the online community DIYDrones, provides the “brains” and open-source software capable of turning regular ’ol RC aircraft into autonomous vehicles.

    Drone On, which features some of these firms that dot the drone zone, premieres this month here on Motherboard. Stay tuned.

    Top: Motherboard pilots a small 3D Robotics quadcopter over San Diego, July 2012

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson

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