IYK, Ventura testify in Sacramento

Assembly Select Committee on Aerospace hears merits of competing California efforts to establish UAS test sites

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

IYK, Ventura testify in SacramentoAmbassadors of Inyokern- and Ventura-based efforts to establish unmanned aerial system test sites in California brought their cases before the Assembly Select Committee on Aerospace at a March 19 hearing.

In December 2011 Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to establish six sites that would serve as RDT&E bases to integrate UAVs into federal airspace.

Local proponents from Inyokern Airport and the China Lake Alliance identified Inyokern as a worthy candidate more than a year ago and have since been consolidating political, industrial and DOD support for the effort.

Proponents of the Inyokern and Ventura efforts were introduced last fall in hopes that the two factions could collaborate in a single en-deavor. However, when the FAA request for proposals was finally submitted (eight months late), one of the mandates was identifying a single public agency to lead each proposal. With neither Ventura nor Inyokern wanting to assume a subservient position, the groups launched individual bid efforts.

While the general consensus of the Assembly committee was to consolidate the two efforts into one, both Bill Buratto, CEO of the Ventura County Economic Devel-opment Association, and Eileen Shibley, leader of the Cal UAS Portal, pointed out that although that had been the original intent, the requirements from the FAA and the compact time frame — teams had only 10 days from the release of the requirements to form alliances and define areas of operation — prevented that from becoming reality.

Committee members expressed concern that splintering Califor-nia’s resources weakened both efforts, a concern that was also acknowledged by the speakers.

Buratto presented his opening statement first, testifying that Ventura entered the process in hopes of mitigating the inevitable reductions to DOD — a significant employer in both the Ventura and Indian Wells Valley regions.

He said that although the Ventura effort had split from the Cal UAS Portal, “We indicated that if we were awarded a site, we would reach out to them in implementation. They responded that they would do the same.”

“When we first looked at the proposed legislation, we thought about how we could put our best food forward to be part of this and keep jobs in California,” said Shibley.

“At that time, a lot of manufacturers were actually taking things other places because it was easier. Part of that was because FAA regulations made things so onerous. We thought this was a great opportunity to be a part of establishing these future rules.”

Shibley said that one of the first considerations was identifying an area of operations. “When you look at how you would do research and testing, our logic is that we wanted to avoid high commercial traffic areas.” She showed a map depicting Inyokern right in the middle of the largest contiguous piece of restricted airspace in the United States.

The area within the Cal UAS Portal also includes desert, mountain and maritime environments, as well as climatic diversity.

“We had everything desirable, including a remote location — because when you look at what we’ll be doing you do not want to be close to a metropolitan environment.”

Shibley said another asset was the technological synergy in the area. “If you look at the area we have identified, it holds the preponderance of UAV intellectual capital in the entire United States. That includes two of our premier research facilities located within 50 miles — China Lake and NASA Dryden.”

Despite that advantage, California is facing efforts in competing states that are funded to the tunes of millions and have consolidated support from industry and political leaders.

“But the whole idea behind this is to figure out ways to safely integrate this technology. That’s really want we want it to be about. We need to figure out how to do that and still keep those jobs in California.”

Shibley agreed that the efforts would be stronger if combined. “It is impractical to think FAA would find their way to pick two sites in California. Beyond that, there is strength in numbers. If we can see all of California in one application, I think we could be favorably considered by FAA.”

“Very rarely in one’s lifetime do we have an opportunity to bring so many jobs to so many people,” said newly elected Assemblyman Steve Fox, a Democrat from Lancaster. He said the issue was first brought to his awareness when Shibley briefed him in Sacramento. That prompted him sponsor bills relating to the manufacturing of UAVs.

“You are the only one who came to my office, so I want to thank you publicly for working with us.”

He asked Shibley about the Cal UAS partners. She responded that they have 17 airports and several smaller divert fields, as well as a memorandum of understanding with the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division — which has sites at China Lake and Point Mugu (in Ventura) and access to 1.1 million acres of restricted airspace.

Buratto said that his effort includes nine airports, but he believed the important thing is that they have geographic diversity and access to restricted airspace similar to that described by Shibley.

Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, a Republican from Camarillo, asked if it is too late in the process for the two entities to consolidate their efforts as equal partners.

Buratto stated that is something they need to hear from the FAA on. “These are not issues we were unwilling to negotiate, but we were pressed up against a deadline that required one or the other of us to step aside.”

“We always wanted an equal partnership — that’s what we think makes the most sense.” Shibley said that the groups could theoretically merge if one simply joined the other’s application, but the details would need to be worked out through the FAA.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a Bakersfield Republican, noted that the Inyokern proposal includes bipartisan support across 15 Assembly districts, eight state Senate districts and 10 Congressional districts and includes such political leaders as the chair of the House Armed Services Committee and the Republican Whip.

She said that, not seeing a similarly diverse range of support from Ventura, she would like to see that effort join Inyokern.

“We decided it was in our best interest to do our own application,” said Buratto.

“In your best interest, or California’s?” Grove asked.

Buratto declined to answer.

Grove said she thought it unfortunate that California sat on the best resources in the nation but remained divided.

“I think Eileen and I will agree with this, but the fact of the matter is that this is now an issue in Sacramento, but you’re about six months late,” said Buratto. “We recognized this was an opportunity for the state of California. I want to go on record saying we did everything we could to get Sacramento’s attention. And we got none until March 19. And that is too bad, but that’s where we find ourselves today.”

“I want to commend you both for your work,” said Fox. “I am glad I had an opportunity to meet both of you. I want to especially thank Eileen Shibley for coming into my office and not leaving until she was heard, and for what she’s accomplished since.”

“I think we’re all in agreement that one application is in the best interest of the state of California,” said Committee Chair Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance. “We hope that can be accomplished.”

Story First Published: 2013-03-27