Mad River Union
McKINLEYVILLE – Development of unpiloted aerial drones is advancing and having large corporations use Humboldt County airspace for operating them is up for consideration by the Board of Supervisors.
The county’s Aviation Advisory Committee gave its annual report at the board’s Jan. 23 meeting. One of the presentation’s attention-getting segments focused on the possibility of having the county participate in a federal effort to integrate the operation of drones into local airspaces.
Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) or drone technology is advancing quickly and the Trump Administration seeks to “accelerate drone integration into the national airspace system,” according to a White House fact sheet.
That’s being done through a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pilot program that allows corporations like Amazon and Google to test drone operations ranging from delivery of commercial packages and medicines to infrastructure monitoring.
Describing the progress of drone technology, David Marshall, a member of Humboldt State University’s advisory committee on use of drones for scientific purposes, said that “the growth is scary and the numbers of applications of the technology are up to your imagination.”
Images of drones were displayed and one was described by Marshall as flying at a height of 400 feet or lower, at a speed of 60 miles per hour.
Marshall said that through the FAA program, state and local governments are being asked to “engage” with companies that use or want to use drones, leading the way to changes in rules on use of airspace.
The use methods that would be tried but are generally not allowed now include operation of drones beyond line of sight. “It’s to promote innovation, so there’s openness right now at the federal level to engage and to allow for change,” Marshall said. He added, “Because of the economic growth and the amount of money being spent by large corporations, there’s an opportunity here.”
Being a rural area “makes us interesting to operate in because if something bad happens, it won’t be a ‘big deal,’ so to speak,” said Marshall.
The county’s foggy weather also makes Humboldt an ideal drone testing area, he continued.
“We have a couple of rare things that we can offer to potentially produce an economic benefit for the area,” Marshall said. “But I don’t know how to couch this in a way that makes sense to this board because there’s a lot of unknowns and open questions.”
He said the intent of his presentation is “to see if Humboldt County would like to hold itself out as a proof of concept test ground for UAS operations that are being developed by large corporations.” Supervisor Estelle Fennell described the program as being “exciting” and Board Chair Ryan Sundberg said it sounds “pretty interesting.”
Supervisors supported having the county’s Aviation Advisory Committee draft a proposal for participating in the pilot program.
Also during the presentation, Dominic Bucciarelli, the committee’s vice-chair, outlined revenue-generation recommendations from an aviation consultant’s report.
One of them is to lease billboard space at airport properties and Bucciarelli said the consultants believe “there’s a lot of money there.”
But Supervisor Mike Wilson said the billboard recommendation is one that should have been included on the consultant’s list of options that would be considered as overly controversial.
“I don’t think they asked anyone about the political palatability of this before they put it on the list,” he said. “So let’s be realistic – uglifying Humboldt County is not on our list of priorities.”
Other supervisors didn’t comment on the billboard idea.
Also during the presentation, County Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen updated supervisors on a plan to have the Airports Division, which is under the Department of Public Works, be its own department.
Nilsen said a job specification for the department director position is being developed and recruitment will follow. An interim director will be appointed as organization of the new department progresses, she continued.