The global commercial drone market is valued at $1.6 billion and growing quickly. Communities around the world, including the Monterey Bay area, are trying to get a piece of that economic growth.
The City of Marina is already working to establish itself as a place where drone businesses can thrive. It welcomed the University of California’s third annual Drone Camp this summer. Over three days in late June, the 70 participants learned about safety, regulations and data processing. They also practiced flying over open space on the former Fort Ord.
“That's what this drone camp is all about, is providing all of these folks the basic background to incorporate UAVS [unmanned aerial vehicles] into their workflows,” says UC Professor Maggi Kelly. She runs the camp.
Participants included educators and researchers like Michael Matson. He’s a scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Salinas office. He’s currently monitoring disease in a local strawberry field.
“So we want to be able to use the drone technology as a really quick way to spot problems before they become bigger problems,” says Matson.
Matson says it’s much faster than checking on foot and cheaper than renting a plane. He sees drones as a valuable tool for all kinds of crops in the Salinas Valley.
“It we can apply this to a 100-acre field, and not only strawberries or lettuce or celery or anything else that goes through the Salad Bowl of America, it’ll help those operations tremendously,” says Matson.
That future is what’s behind Monterey Bay DART. It’s an initiative to create a local hub for drone, automation and robotics technology, or DART.
Josh Metz helped create DART. He says it's compatible not just with agriculture, but other economic engines of this region.
“Conservation and natural resources management, certainly the national defense and homeland security applications, and public safety are significant,” says Metz.
Metz is the Economic Development Manager for the Fort Ord Reuse Authority. The agency oversees economic recovery of the former Fort Ord Army Base, which closed nearly 25 years ago.
Metz says a drone and robotics hub could be in Marina. Right next to the Army’s old airport, now the Marina Municipal Airport, is the UC MBEST Center. It was supposed to be a research and development center, but never materialized.
“Due to a combination of factors, perhaps most significantly the Great Recession, this project area has yet to realize the dreamed of four to six thousand high quality jobs that it was originally envisioned for,” says Metz.
It’s already prepped for development, with high speed internet and lighting along the roads. Metz walks outside the modern, landscaped MBEST building and points to acres of open space that could be used for drone testing. He also thinks the area’s proximity to Silicon Valley is a big plus.
“Boy, nothing but opportunity in front of us,” he says.
Over at the Marina Airport, Jeff Crechriou watches a plane land. He’s lived in Marina since 1995. He’s managed the airport for the past six years.
“I think Marina is really starting to hit its stride in terms of maturing and growing and it's exciting to be a part of that,” says Crechriou.
He says the airport isn’t realizing its full potential yet. But future plans include expanding the business park. The Bonny Doon-based company Joby Aviation is already leasing two buildings and in talks with the City of Marina about adding a future manufacturing facility. Joby Aviation is developing drone inspired air taxis. They’re being designed for commuters.
“This would be our most significant tenant to date in terms of potential jobs. And so we're very excited about that. But even more so, this is a nice segue into the discussion of drone and robotics and what they call the UAS market,” says Crechriou.
That global commercial market is expected to reach over $12 billion in value by 2025, according to market research firm Tractica. Other West Coast communities already working in the drone space include San Diego, Reno and Grand Forks, North Dakota.