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SACRAMENTO—You might think that testing robotic aircraft for future civilian use would be a quintessential California enterprise. But not if you're a U.S. senator from the state. The governor's not exactly a cheerleader for the idea, either.

California, after all, is where test pilots with "the right stuff" first broke the sound barrier. The state had a huge role in developing the space shuttle. It has been home to a huge aircraft industry. And we have plenty of open airspace over deserts, mountains and ocean.

It's also the location of major military drone makers, such as AeroVironment of Monrovia, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of Poway and Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both in Palmdale. Many military drones are tested for the first time at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.

But drones send quivers down many politicians' spines. The unmanned vehicles aren't exactly politically correct these days, with all the unintended civilian casualties during drone strikes in Afghanistan and some FBI spying with robotic craft in the U.S.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called drones "the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans."

But their nonmilitary use — for firefighting, search and rescue, agriculture — seems inevitable.

When two California coalitions submitted bids to be chosen by the federal government as test sites for domestic drone use, they didn't get Feinstein's support. Neither did they receive the backing of California's other senator, Barbara Boxer.

Gov. Jerry Brown also kept mute, although an obscure entity he created—the Governor's Military Council—sent a letter to Washington urging that "full consideration" be given to the California applications.

"California has a history of innovation in the aerospace industry," the council noted in its letter. "Nowhere else in the country can you find continuous airspace containing such diversity….The long history of UAS [unmanned aircraft system] test and evaluation at Edwards Air Force Base, Pt. Mugu....and China Lake means that the expertise to integrate this technology into the NAS [national air space] already exists in California."

That might have had some impact if signed by California's governor. But a military panel? About testing drones for civilian use? Where were California's three top political leaders, all Democrats?

California's two applications—one based in Ventura County and the other in Kern County—were passed over recently by the Federal Aviation Administration in favor of sites in Nevada, Texas, Alaska, New York, North Dakota and Virginia.

A laugher was FAA Administrator Michael Huerta's comment that the selections were made based on such factors as geographic and climate diversity, available ground infrastructure, types of research proposed and the volume of air traffic near testing. No state is more geographically diverse than California and the applicants planned to use all types of terrain, from the Sierra to the sea.

"The states that did win had the support of their chief executives," says Assemblyman Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), who was pushing for the Ventura bid. "A 'military council' doesn't carry the same weight as a governor."

"I'm not trying to start a war with the governor," adds Gorell, who was a drone targeting officer in Afghanistan and is running for Congress, "but other states' bids had a lot of support. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to attract next-generation jobs."

I suspect that Brown had questions about the practicality of domestic drones and worried about invading citizens' privacy. But neither the governor nor his office would comment, except to say that his economic development unit—called GO-Biz—"worked directly with both local applicants to strengthen their bids."

What probably would have strengthened California's position was for the governor personally to browbeat the two applicants into combining their separate bids into one. Both sides, however, say they ran out of time to unite.

"I'm very puzzled and frustrated" about being rejected, says Eileen Shibley, who headed the Kern County application. She used to manage military drone testing at the China Lake naval station.

"Why didn't somebody in the governor's office just say out loud that 'we want these jobs in California?' That's the question."

Everybody agrees that thousands of well-paying technology jobs were at stake.

Bill Buratto, who heads the Ventura County Economic Development Assn. and spearheaded that county's bid, says, "We felt this was a wonderful opportunity for the entire state. We were disappointed when our enthusiasm wasn't fully embraced by folks in Sacramento and the governor's office."

The Legislature did pass a resolution urging the FAA "to consider California."

But there was no help at all from the senators.

Boxer's office wouldn't talk on the record but indicated that the senator didn't want to choose between two competing California bids and, anyway, she had deep concerns about drone safety and citizen privacy.

Feinstein put her concerns on the record last spring during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into domestic drone use. "I have seen drones do all kinds of things," she told one industry witness. "And I think all those things bring on great caution."

She continued, "It may well not be legal to carry any munitions on a drone, but what can be done illegally?... Can they take pictures of an individual through a window inside their home?… What conditions should be placed on the granting of law enforcement use of drones?"

Good questions. They're ones to be answered during testing. Too bad our political leaders didn't push for some California input — and all those good jobs.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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