By Jenny Espino, Record Searchlight, April 2013

The email blast to California airport administrators was straightforward: Ventura County wants to enter the bidding for drone test-flying. Partners are welcome.

Now the question is whether Redding will get on board. The Southern California county submits its final set of data to the Federal Aviation Administration by May 6. And of the nine responses it received to its invitation, none are as interesting
as the ones that came from Redding and Truckee, one of its leaders assures.

“What we wanted to be able to do is create pathways to various airports,” said Bill Buratto, president and chief executive officer of Ventura County Economic Development Association, describing the concept of an air highway passing through
unpopulated areas in the state. “We were excited with Redding and Truckee because you guys are so far north. People will want to test in your kind of environment.”

Presenting a unified, statewide project is important, but it comes amid a national debate over drone safety and privacy concerns that are especially running high among conservatives in the north state.

Expect the pressure to fall on Redding Councilwoman Missy McArthur, who was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting and can provide the tie-breaking vote if the issue returns to the council on April 16.

McArthur, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday, is an outspoken proponent of local business and tends to vote with Mayor Rick Bosetti and Councilwoman Francie Sullivan on key issues.

The corridor envisioned by VCEDA and Todd McNamee, Ventura County’s director of airports, hugs the coast from Camarillo and Oxnard to Northern California and has off ramps that go inland to Castle Air Force Base in Merced County, the forested
countryside of the Sierra Nevada and Redding. (Map of potential drone test sites)

The FAA is expected to choose six test sites by the end of the year. Among the 50 competitors, there is some muscle flexing going on. Indiana and Ohio, for one, have partnered in pursuit of being named a test site.

The pilotless aircraft technology is being billed as the next big trend in aerospace. It promises more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic activity in its first ten years, from 2015 to 2025.

No one knows with certainty what the market is as the flying battlefield robots transition to nonmilitary purposes.

One strong potential for the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV, is farming and public safety, said Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit trade group based in Arlington, Va.

Drones are not new to Shasta County. Cal Fire used them to fight lightning-sparked fires in 2008. One of them caused a stir at a rally last month, as it buzzed around at vintner Reverge Anselmo’s vineyard in Shingletown.

Outside the United States, the technology’s ability has provided a bird’s eye view to farmers in Japan, saving them time and money that comes from renting more costly small planes. Ninety-eight percent of Japanese farms use the unmanned aerial

In Australia, they flew along beaches during summer months spotting swimmers in trouble and monitoring shark activity. Brazil has used the robots to monitor illegal logging, Hinton said.

Her groups sees an urgency to develop the technology and integrate their use on the domestic front.

Buratto said no state has more at stake in the burgeoning industry than California.

AUVSI released a report in March that showed the Golden State benefitting the most, with the potential for 18,000 new jobs and $14 billion pumped into the economy in the first decade. The state of Washington is a distant second by comparison,
with the potential for 10,000 new jobs and $7.8 billion in economic boon.

“There is going to be all kinds of manufacturing companies that will start around the test,” said Mark Lascelles, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Shasta County, who has high hopes about beefing up the aviation sector. “We (could)
get a portion of that development.”

Nothing prevents Ventura County from filing its application without Redding’s participation. In fact, the door would remain open to Redding if it rejects the invitation and then Ventura is awarded one of the coveted designations, Buratto said.

“The more communities we can engage, the more economic benefits we’re going to be able to see,” he said.

But there is something to be said for numbers during the application process. It bolsters the case for the state, absent the governor’s office taking a lead in the application.

Lascelles said he has been working with Rod Dinger, Redding airports director, for nearly a year. They knew Shasta County alone did not have the “horsepower” to win federal approval, so they looked at the region’s possibilities of joining
a statewide project, which would carry more political clout. Joining them in efforts is AirCover Integrated Solutions, which researches and develops technology for drone aircraft out of Redding Municipal Airport.

Jim Hill, the company’s president and chief executive officer, was traveling Wednesday and Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

AirCover opened in 2011.

Since then, Shasta County has continued to make strides to market itself as a place for high-tech startups.

Aviation is an ideal fit for the area, as it looks to expanding its workforce and creating top-dollar jobs, Lascelles said.

“The kids that we lose in the community who go out to get an education and then they can’t come back,” he said, “this is going to bring them. That’s what Jim is trying to do.

Residents who addressed the council on Tuesday said they were fearful about government surveillance.

Lascelles said he is sympathetic, but surveillance fears are peripheral to the issue the council is being asked.

“The fear is based on the operation requirement of the aircraft,” he said. “This is about the manufacturing of the aircraft, a totally different issue.”

Hinton, the AUVSI spokeswoman, also noted the testing would be for drones that weigh no more than 25 pounds. Most will weigh less than 5 pounds, have a battery life of no more than 90 minutes and be under severe restrictions.

Ventura isn’t the lone California applicant. The Indian Wells Valley Airport District, too, submitted an application. Both have agreed that if either one wins, they will reach out and include one another in their plans, Buratto said.