Jobs Worth Keeping

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General Atomics

A Predator drone unleashes a Hellfire missile.

Drones may not be the future of warfare, but they certainly are a part of the future of warfare. While they aren’t as inexpensive as many folks believe (as Winslow Wheeler detailed on Battleland last February), they are filling a need for maintaining persistent eyes on potential terrorists – and the ability to kill them if and when potential terrorists morph into the real thing.

We can debate the moral propriety of such unmanned killing machines all the livelong day, but the fact is that they – and President Obama’s re-election – mean they’re going to play an increasing role in national security in coming years.

That’s good news for San Diego, which finds itself the capital of the drone-building universe. The industry has doubled in size in San Diego County over the past five years, and now generates $1.3 billion annually and supports more than 7,000 jobs in the region, according to a new study released by the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce.

San Diego’s two major drone exporters are Northrop Grumman, which builds Global Hawk spy drones, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, developer of the Predator and Reaper drones. The drone market is expected to double by the end of the decade, and its growth in San Diego County continues even as other kinds of defense spending shrink. Just as important, the study says civilian use of drones is poised to take off.

The report is designed to serve as a wakeup call to San Diego to ensure it doesn’t take this new business for granted. No university in the region grants doctorates in aerospace engineering, there is scant room in the local congested airspace to fly drones, and “there seems only scant awareness as to the looming challenges at the federal level in respect to defense spending and what those challenges could mean for San Diego’s leadership role in UAVs,” says the study, done by economist Kelly Cunningham at the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

Kelly Cunningham

This chart makes it easy to see why San Diego wants to hang on to its drone business.

“More than two dozen states and regions are engaged in targeted efforts to support UAV manufacturing and development,” the study notes. “Universities such as Georgia Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made major investments in UAV research and are regular participants in the research competitions sponsored by the industry.”

“UAV production is revitalizing San Diego’s historic aerospace industry, which had significantly dwindled prior to 9/11 and commencement of [the] war on terror,” Cunningham tells Battleland. “At a time of still struggling economic growth and relatively high unemployment, the UAV industry’s growth can potentially further significantly expand.”

Cunningham notes the average drone worker earns more than $121,000 annually, 140% more than the average San Diego worker, and nearly 40% more than the average local aerospace worker. Kind of gives the notion of hard-working drones some luster.