Stage Is Set For Piloting Careers To Take Off

MARINA — When the Army transferred ownership of the Marina Airport to the city of Marina in 1995, city officials envisioned using a third of the 845 acres for light industrial development and corporate aviation. But now after years of underutilization, officials are hoping to embrace a new wave of aviation technology, entailing drones and robotics.

A slowly building collaboration between industry, academia, and the government, is now bringing these unmanned aerial technologies to life in the Monterey Bay Region.  This multi-sector collaboration, called the Monterey Bay Drone, Automation & Robotics Technology (DART) initiative, was established in 2017 and is led by the Fort Ord Reuse Authority. Its public and private sector partners include the city of Marina, the University of California, CSU Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, Airspace Integration, Joby Aviation, among others.

“We are focused on the potential of these industries to either grow, or attract good fit companies here to develop their technology and grow their businesses,” said Josh Metz, Economic Development Manager at FORA. “We are looking at it as a regional economic development initiative.”

Recently, the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP),a nonprofit organisation, held its third meeting to advance dialogue between DART’s partner companies and educational institutions, including regional community colleges like Gavilan and Hartnell colleges “We are specifically working to see how we can get  employers and educators together to solve our workforce development … for residents to get higher paying jobs,” said Kate Roberts, president of MBEP.

The question of airspace access

Around 2012, leading industry giants like Amazon and Google had begun to leave the U.S. to develop and test their product-delivery drone prototypes in other countries. Unlike the U.S., these countries were able to provide them with favorable airpace access. But, within the U.S., pressures to loosen up and regulate airspace had begun to mount. In this direction, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a call for proposals under the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program in 2017.

Although DART’s proposal for developing Monterey Bay Region as a hub for automation technology wasn’t one of the 10 areas named, the process was successful in bringing together a commonly-motivated community in the region. “It demonstrated a demand for what we were talking about, which was facilities and airspace for drone testing and development,” Metz said.

What makes the Monterey Bay Region an ideal candidate for automation technology?

“Our combined geography being close to Silicon Valley, the agricultural technology happening in Salinas Valley, and our marine environment,” Metz said.  This, along with the potential to develop Marina Municipal Airport, which is relatively underutilized at present, as an unmanned aerial systems innovation cluster.

The airport “is a key element because that would enable the type of aerospace access that folks wanted,” Metz said. The airport also includes city-owned land zoned for light industrial development  and is collaborating with UC Monterey Bay Education, Science and Technology Center to develop an economic growth center for the Peninsula.

“As the universe of unmanned aircraft systems expands … we need to figure out how they’d fit into the same airspace,” says Jeff  Crechriou, Marina Airport services manager. Without an approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, no airspace can be designated for drone operations at the airport as of yet.  “That is something we want to continue to explore,” says Crechriou.

Marina airport was built in the early 1960s and sits on the former site of Fritzsche Army Air Field.

“Working from how we got this property from the army, our vision has been morphing into how to solve the demand for more aviation services in the area,”said Crechriou. “We view it (airport) as both a public airport and an economic development center that will benefit the community and the region.”

As per the 2018 airport master plan, the city of Marina envisions extending  the 3,483-foot runway to 5,200 feet, and developing airport’s vacant land and 75-acre business park property. “The DART program is one attempt at bringing one of the many lines of businesses here,” Crechriou says.

Jobs aplenty for a skilled workforce

Metz envisions the unmanned aerial systems innovation cluster to generate nearly 5,000 high-end engineering jobs in the future. “We are looking at it as an economic development opportunity to provide good paying jobs … an opportunity to learn, and grow families here, and make it part of a healthy economic system.”

Marina Airport Services Manager Jeff Crechriou walks to the door of an unoccupied former military maintenance hangar at the Marina Airport on Thursday January 7, 2019. Joby Aviation has plans to use the empty space in their efforts to develop air taxis. (David Royal/ Herald Correspondent)

But if a company wanted to set up a new manufacturing facility, or grow from a startup to a mid-stage business, it would need a skilled workforce. “We’re coordinating with educational institutions … for workforce training and education to supply an educated workforce to meet demand from companies,” Metz said.

Joby Aviation, a Bonny Doon-based aerospace company, which is currently developing a  prototype of a pilotless air taxi, recently leased 75,000 square feet of hangar space at Marina Airport. They’re now working with the city to  develop a manufacturing facility concept plan. “They could supply upward of 1,500 high tech jobs…ranging from complex aerospace and electrical engineering to custom composite moulding kind of manufacturing,” Metz said.

Through the DART initiative, leaders at Joby Aviation are engaging with local organizations like Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) to discuss capacity building. Their hope is to have a skilled workforce fill up positions that’ll open over the next five years.

“It’s getting a little bit more real now,” said Kate Roberts, president of MBEP, “given that there’s more commitment to have Joby Aviation be based out of the Marina Airport.” Her team is bringing together businesses, educational institutions, regional community colleges in particular, as well as non-profits to address questions like – What does the employer need? What type of skills? Who will provide the necessary educational and technical training? How do interested people enroll in these programs so they get hired?

But these developments won’t happen overnight. “It’s more in the realm of months and years,” Metz said

Expanding the DART initiative

In the meanwhile, AirSpace Integration, a Watsonville-based private company that manages physical spaces and airspaces, and a DART-partner, is keen to take on a training focus which integrates local communities. “We want to provide trainings for high school kids or adults that are interested in drone technology,” said Chris Bley, founder of AirSpace Integration. “That would spur conversation…and is one way to educate people primarily for safety, so that they aren’t getting injured, or properties getting damaged….or conflicts with other flying planes and jets.”

Marina Airport Services Manager Jeff Crechriou walks through an unoccupied former military maintenance hangar at the Marina Airport on Thursday January 7, 2019. Joby Aviation has plans to use the empty space in their efforts to develop air taxis. (David Royal/ Herald Correspondent)

According to Bely, the plan for now is to continue expanding the DART initiative and bring together interested individuals and organisations, mentors and investors. “We’re constantly looking for other partners and people to get excited about what we’re doing in the Monterey Bay region,” he said.

Marina Airport Services Manager Jeff Crechriou walks through an unoccupied former military maintenance hangar at the Marina Airport on Thursday January 7, 2019. Joby Aviation has plans to use the empty space in their efforts to develop air taxis. (David Royal/ Herald Correspondent)

Last week the DART initiative hosted its first meetup at UCMBEST. Scheduled to attend were the DART initiative’s existing partners, owners of startups, heads of companies operating at Marina Airport, folks from Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, people in the agricultural technology and aviation sector, among others.

Through these meetups, Metz hopes to see a significant increase in DART-related companies in and around the Marina Airport in the near future. “We would have a rich network of startup companies and investors….a scene that would help the Monterey Bay Region become known nationally, if not internationally, as a center for innovation in these areas and a good place for companies to thrive,” he said.

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Marina Airport looks to take off with drones
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