Airport Board to Discuss Participation in Program

The Santa Maria Public Airport Board of Directors will consider partnering with two other airports in a program that could eventually lead to unmanned drones launching here.

The board will discuss working with the Ventura County Department of Airports and Indian Wells Valley Airport District when it meets Thursday night, to be an alternate launch and recovery site if those airports are chosen for an Unmanned Aircraft Systems program being instituted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The board meets at 7 p.m. at the airport administration building.

The two airports are among 24 facilities in 25 states that have applied to be part of the program that is in the early stages of working unmanned drones into the county’s National Airspace System.

While that may sound ominous and eventually lead to drones flying around the country, Santa Maria Airport General Manager Chris Hastert said it won’t be happening any time soon.

“We are not putting in to be one of the test sites. Ventura and Indian Wells both are. They listed us as a potential launch or recovery site,” he explained. “(The FAA) is looking for ways to integrate them into regular air space.”

Only six test sites will be chosen throughout the country. Hastert said Indian Wells’ proximity to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, and Ventura’s proximity to Point Mugu Naval Air Station are reasons those facilities chose to apply for the program.

Hastert said law enforcement and fire fighting agencies have been looking for ways to integrate the remote-controlled aircraft into their activities. He said they could be very useful in mapping out fire boundaries which would help establish temporary flight restrictions — boundaries that prevent private flights.

He said the agreements with the two airports don’t commit the airport to anything.  “It basically says that if they are awarded one of the test site locations, we would negotiate with them to be a launch and recovery site,” he said.

If Santa Maria Public Airport participates in the program, and it grows, Hastert said it could benefit the local economy in terms of jobs, if manufacturing or high tech companies decide to locate here.

8/22/13    Brian Bullock / bbullock@santamariatimes.com