Cali-Baja region is poised to become a drone hub

By Diane Lindquist

The San Diego-Baja California region is positioning itself to be a hub in the emerging global drone industry, not only by promoting companies developing and manufacturing the unmanned aerial vehicles and their parts but also by training pilots, some as young as in elementary school.

“San Diego and Tijuana should dominate the drone industry in the near future,” said Darryl Anunciado, founder of ActionDrone. “It’ll happen if we develop the people, not just the industry.”

Although recreational drones have become commonplace — even touted as a children’s toy this Christmas thanks to low-cost manufacturers in China — weak consumer demand and falling prices have driven startups to shift their focus to specialized business applications.

Drones are equipped with a high-speed processor, battery, GPS receiver, compass and sensors like an accelerometer and gyroscope. Unmanned planes currently can fly for up to three hours and helicopters for an hour and a half. Connected to a modem, they can transmit real-time data in a range of up to 60 kilometers (37 miles).

They range in price from about $50 to $350,000 or more.

While drones originated in military applications, activity in the San Diego-Baja California area is focused mostly on commercial, scientific, recreational, agricultural and other applications, such as policing and surveillance, aerial photography and drone racing. A group of operators often hold Friday Fly Days in Chula Vista just a few miles from the border.

Several people are developing proprietary components and code that eventually can establish an ongoing income stream.

One Tijuana venture, the Institute Mexicana de Grafene, is focusing on graphene, a relatively newly discovered form of carbon that’s 200 times stronger and six times lighter than steel. It’s predicted to radically change battery technology by opening up the possibilities of bendable or super-lightweight batteries to replace the ion lithium batteries used currently, allowing drones to be be much larger and fly faster and further.

More than 40 countries around the world either deploy or manufacture drones. Still commercial endeavors are in their infancy wherever they are located. Only about six operators in Tijuana and a handful in San Diego have established formal companies. Numerous others are working on startups in homes and garages much as David Packard and Bill Hewlett did in founding Hewlett-Packard and Steve Jobs did in starting Apple, the firms that gave rise to the computer industry.

Indeed, Marco Lepe, creator of the grafene institute, compares the current state of the drone industry to the computer industry’s early days and the development of the internet.

“Drones are an opening to the future,” he said. “It’s only the top of the iceberg right now. “This is a new opportunity for the Cali-Baja region,” Lepe said. “Both sides have the the vision, the engineers, the marketing expertise and goods being exported worldwide.”

Parallels to the early Silicon Valley computer startups are compelling.

Baja California native Jordi Munoz, who had just arrived in the United States and was waiting for a green card, passed time by building a drone prototype in his garage out of a video gaming console’s remote controls. It became 3D Robotics, which attracted $135m in investment and has been routinely listed among the world’s top drone makers. He has since left that firm to found another in Chula Vista.

Anunciado was selling devices online, putting them together in his bedroom until one caught fire and his wife demanded he relocate to a warehouse. His ActionDrone firm headquarters in Chula Vista’s East Lake neighborhood now employs 9 engineers there and manufactures in Schenzen, China.

The company turned an important corner when the U.S. Navy hired him to build 20 drones for training. “That’s when everything changed,” he said.

Since then, his custom-built drones have been used by Mexico’s Comisión Federal de Electricidad to inspect electric power lines. They are seeking leaks in oil pipelines for a company in Dubai. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking him to build a drone that can measure the temperatures of cattle.

“There’s no one drone that fits all,” he said. “That was a big wakeup.”

Anunciado, 36, an MBA who previously was in banking and property management, is a major mover in the area’s drone industry. He has been working with San Diego State University on an as yet unspecified program. He has convinced Chula Vista and the YMCA to establish a drone racing course that will open in January. When U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker paid a visit, he lobbied her to give special support to the local industry.

“My pitch is create a new drone hub in San Diego that will create a new Silicon Valley. You don’t even have to work for it,” he said. Tijuana “is part of the plan. … Tijuana is such a good location. They have the right people. They’re smart. They’re like a hidden gem.”

He believes there will be a blurred line between San Diego and Tijuana and has reached across the border to help with the establishment of Geeks Academy, a venture that will, among other things, train young people as drone pilots.

“There were no teachers qualified to teach drones so we spent three months training teachers and it led to Geeks Academy,” Anuciado said. For one of the first courses, an expected enrollment of 10 attracted 22 students. By the end of the course, students can race, design a drone, be familiar with components and create needed software.

“They’re so good and so fast. They sometimes leave us behind,” he said.

Anunciado’s nurturing of the fledgling Cali-Baja industry but especially

of young drone pilots is close to his heart.

“What we’re concentrating on is the human aspect because I believe the future is not the drones, it’s the people,” he said. “There’s enough drones out there to do the work, but there aren’t enough pilots.”

Action Drones, he said, not only makes the drone but also provides the training for operators. One company wanted 2,000 pilots.

By 2020, $127b worth of labor and business services could be replaced by drones, according to a May report from consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Moreover, “In the next decade, the burgeoning commercial drone industry is projected to generate more than $82b for the U.S. economy and, by 2025, could support as many as 100,000 new jobs,” White House representatives recently wrote in a fact sheet.

Individuals in the San Diego-Baja California region believe much of that income will be generated by area entrepreneurs.

“We are going to create a middle class with a good industry that’s going to offer unlimited opportunities,” Anunciado said.