Slapshot

Slapshot

Not-so-transparent drone process in VC

By Shane Cohn 03/28/2013


I’m not too big on this whole flying robots thing.


At least not yet.


It could be that some 20-odd years later I’m learning that the Terminator franchise caused some lingering trauma, and I’ll be forever leery of Skynet and its drones, politically known as “unmanned aerial vehicle systems.”


I suppose this whole drone concept that has exploded in the press since Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster would be easier to swallow, or just wonderfully ironic, if the Terminator was still actually our state leader. He’d know just what to do if the robots turned on us.


Instead, we have a 74-year-old man known as Moonbeam.


So, in the meantime, and without John Connor and company, we need to keep ourselves informed. Keep up with technology, try to understand it. And as much as any print journalist hates to admit it, I’m accepting these cyber times. I’m giving it a go. I know all about these things called “apps” now and all the shortcuts they provide. I don’t have to spell anymore and some voice tells me what to do when I drive. I guess life is easier now, though I don’t remember common sense being all that tough.


Apparently, drones will also make people’s lives easier because, apparently, we need more surveillance, more data collection to understand things in our day-to-day lives.


Apparently, drones will make it easier for law enforcement, fire fighting, farming, movie-making and killing. Because, apparently, those things are not easy enough.


Apparently, drones will make lots and lots of money for people. A cool $82 billion in economic activity for the country — $14.4 billion for California — in 10 years.


And apparently, Ventura County wants to become the drone capital of the country.


As reported in the past weeks, legislation has been written, applications have been made and alliances have been formed with the Board of Supervisors, universities, corporations and other government entities to convince the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that Ventura County should win designation as one of six national drone test sites. The Ventura County Sheriff’s office also has an application with the FAA to be granted approval to test and use drones, which would make it one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to do so.


This could be a great thing for county residents. Or not. Who could really say at this point? Thing is, none of our elected officials explained any of this to me, not as a news reporter, but as a resident. Perhaps they explained this whole plan to you?


Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarilo, did co-host a three-day symposium in Westlake Village titled “Civilian Applications of UAVs — A California Perspective,” March 26-28, during working hours. But were you able to attend? Were you able to afford the $175 registration?


Maybe there was a press release in my spam folder about some town hall meetings held by each of our supervisors in their respective districts to explain to their constituents this highly controversial drone business plan that could be taking place in our backyard? If there was, sorry about not printing it in our Happenings section.


But something tells me there was not. Two weeks ago, after receiving a tip that the sheriff’s department and the board of supervisors were working together on something that had to do with drones and the FAA, I made some calls.


On Friday, March 15, Supervisor John Zaragoza, District 5, said that nothing about unmanned aerial vehicles had been brought to the board, and Supervisor Linda Parks, District 2, said she didn’t know about the other supervisors but that she did have conversations with the sheriff’s department about the possible applications. A spokesperson for Supervisor Kathy Long, District 3, said there was nothing to report out about drones. Capt. Don Aguilar, public information officer for the sheriff’s department, said the department was not establishing a drone program, but added they may be looking into it.


On Tuesday, March 19, during an Assembly committee hearing in Sacramento about California test sites for the commercial development of drones, it was reported out that the Ventura County Board of Supervisors was named as the lead agency for the Southern California Unmanned Systems Alliance.


In a follow-up, on Friday, March 22, Zaragoza said the FAA required a nonfederal government agency to be the lead for the test site application and that it was all happening pretty fast. He said that he had actually just returned from a four-day trip, March 18-21, to Washington, D.C., where he met with Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Oak Park,  representatives from Rep. Buck McKeon’s (R-Santa Clarita) and U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) offices and other politicians, making sure all their ducks were in a row for the FAA application, which Zaragoza summarized during the comment period of the March 26 board meeting.


If my math serves me right, in two working days the supervisors went from having not talked formally about drones, according to Parks and Zaragoza, to being the lead agency in a drone alliance, including a visit to the nation’s capital.


Aguilar then confirmed earlier this week that the sheriff’s department does have an application with the FAA, but nothing more, as it is a step-by-step process. He said they have not purchased a drone. Sheriff Geoff Dean could not be reached for comment.


I’m glad that our elected officials are busy working together, and also uniting with our local agencies and public servants to accomplish a goal. If accomplished, this goal, however, will make our county a drone capital of America. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. But I sure would like to know more about it from those in charge and ask some questions.


I bet you would, too.  


Slapshot is a monthly column/op-ed piece on various issues around Ventura County.

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