Creators hope Kearny Mesa facility can be an incubator and high-tech classroom

Updated by Ryan Jones
Original Article By Gary Warth

A once-abandoned warehouse behind Coleman University is buzzing these days and could be a new training ground for the next generation of high-tech workers.


The Hornets Nest, a 2,500 square-foot building off Balboa Avenue, is San Diego’s first public drone-testing facility and will serve next month as a classroom for six students learning rapid control prototyping, a growing field with a demand for workers.

The flight area is spartan, nothing but four walls and a high ceiling, with netting at one end to protect wayward drones from flying into a front room. A table covered with a camouflage cloth in the center serves as a type of holding area and launchpad for drones.

Its impact on the region, however, could be great, as its creators see the facility as an incubator for projects, a high-tech classroom and a place for new drone pilots to learn to fly safely.

The facility is operated by the Electric and Networked Vehicle Institute, and about 12 to 20 of its members are at the site each Saturday to work on projects.

Several dozen current or former Coleman University students have worked with ENVI.

“We’re working toward a soft merger,” said Rod Weiss, director of external relations for Coleman University.

Dr. James Burns, founding director of ENVI, explained that the idea for the Hornets Nest was rooted in both an early vision about the need for drone training and his company’s need for skilled workers. He is vice president of TransPower, an Escondido-based company that makes electric Class 8 trucks, the largest trucks on the road.

“Our new startup needed some specialized skills that are taught in very few places,” he said. “Typically, in my opinion, technical education is given the short shaft in the country.”

Dr. Burns taught mechanical engineering at San Diego State University for 15 years before leaving in 2009, and he had approached Coleman University with a proposal for a lecture series, Weiss said.

He also happened to have once been president of the local chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest advocacy group for unmanned land, air and water vehicles.

While president 12 years ago, Dr. Burns said he foresaw a time when drones, which then were considerably more expensive, would become more accessible and popular.

“It’s kind of an expensive and obscure hobby at this point, but in the future, it won’t be so. During a meeting, I said, ‘We need to have a forward-facing centralized location where you can have a program like this and almost anyone can be a part of it,” he said.

“Think about the people who just want to fly drones,” he said. “There may be millions of them flying around just in California soon. How do they get the experience, the knowledge?”

Dr. Burns also said he was aware there were big defense contractors in the area, but no easy way to get into the field, which he believed would use more drones in the future. He predicts drones also will be used more by businesses, replacing helicopters and even underwater divers
for certain duties.

He didn’t want training to be “locked behind the closed doors of academia,” but open to the many people who aren’t seeking four-year degrees but want to learn about the technology.

As he spoke about the needs for such a training facility at a chamber of commerce meeting in North County, Dr. Burns said he learned about a vacant building once used by Maxwell Technologies to devel- op military hardware.

Around the time Dr. Burns approached the university, Weiss said the school also was looking for a makers market-type place for students to build things.

The Hornets Nest has provided that, too, by serving as an incubator for network-connected and electric-powered technology systems for unmanned vehicles. Last year, ENVI placed 21st out of 46 teams competing in the International RoboSub Competition in Point Loma, with a limited budget of $500.00 compared to others with a budget of 20,000 or more.

The Hornets Nest happens to be next door to a concrete water tank about 30 feet deep that once was used to cool equipment but could be used for developing submarine technology, Dr. Burns said.

In about a month, the facility also will hold a small class in rapid control prototyping, and one of the students will be a Coleman University instructor who may teach the subject to his own students.

For all the activity already at the Hornets Nest, Dr. Burns and Weiss see the facility as a test balloon for something greater to come. With support from the community or a philanthropist, a 24,000 square-foot building next door could be developed into a larger incubator for students, ENVI and others to learn high-tech skills, build submarines and fly drones, among other things.

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Twitter: @GaryWarthUT