IRIS, an autonomous security robot by NXT Robotics, meets attendees outside Qualcomm Hall. Photo by Chris Jennewein

From armed Predators and Reapers patrolling over Syria to autonomous security robots roving local parking lots, San Diego has emerged as “ground zero” for robotics and drones.

That was the primary message from a forum sponsored by EvoNexus that drew 400 people Wednesday to Qualcomm Hall in Sorrento Valley.

Linden Blue, vice president of General Atomics, opened the forum by explaining how his company’s drones help protect America at a lower cost with less collateral damage than manned aircraft.

He said a Reaper drone can carry the same payload as an F-16 fighter jet but stay on target ten times longer.

Linden Blue

“This is a much better way of warfighting than the world has every known,” he said.

Charles Bergan, vice president of engineering for Qualcomm Technologies, said Qualcomm is leveraging its processors and wireless technology for industrial drones that can replace people in dangerous environments. As an example, he cited monitoring the Alaskan Pipeline.

“During the winter, nobody wants to be there. But an aircraft that can fly along…can do a better job looking for a leak than a human can.”

Over time, he said, robots will become commonplace. “If you can afford a car, you’ll probably have some service robots in your house,” he said.

Event though robots will replace some jobs, Bergan said, new positions will take their place. He noted that no one misses the jobs once held by telephone operators and bank tellers.

Capt. Kurt Rothenhaus, commanding officer of SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific, said his the Navy benefits from San Diego’s status as a tech hub to attract and keep top people.

“As a nation, our security rests on technological advantage,” he said. “We rely on San Diego as a region.”

Like Bergan, Rothenhaus was optimistic about future roles for people as robots and drones become more sophisticated.

“There hasn’t been a machine yet that can replace the creativity and inspiration that come from people,” he said.

EvoNexus has 56 startup companies — many of them focused on drones and robotics — in incubation in two locations in San Diego and one in Orange County provided by the Irvine Company.

Blue said he rarely gives public speeches, but agreed to the EvoNexus Headliner event because “it’s a wonderful cause — the technical advancement of San Diego.”

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.