A General Atomics SkyGuardian drone is pictured at a 2018 air show in the United Kingdom. / Image via Shutterstock

A military-grade drone project that will help open up U.S skies to new forms of surveillance was scheduled to take flight over San Diego earlier this year, but the company rerouted its path after encountering resistance from federal regulators.

Last week, the U.S. attorney’s office confirmed as part of a Voice of San Diego lawsuit that General Atomics, a local defense contractor, would need to reapply for permission if it wants to test the SkyGuardian over the densely populated metro in the future. The drone originally slated for the San Diego demonstration instead flew in the desert in early April.

A spokesman for General Atomics, C. Mark Brinkley, said the company still managed to complete its objectives by picking a different route. “With the flight complete, there was no need for a flight over San Diego, so we canceled it,” he wrote in an email.

General Atomics is repurposing its drone technology, developed primarily for the U.S. Air Force during the war on terror, for both domestic and international uses. The company has portrayed the integration of its drones into American public and commercial life as a civilian project — a “persistent eye in the sky” for planners and emergency responders.

Yet newly released court documents suggest that General Atomics intended to use the San Diego flight to impress foreign military diplomats, months before the Trump administration loosened restrictions on international arms sales.

Hundreds of pages of emails also show that regulators had safety concerns about the drone and expressed frustration over the timeline they’d been given.

In early 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration insisted the company use a chase plane that would follow and monitor the drone in case something went wrong. It’s not uncommon for drones to malfunction or collide with other objects, including airplanes. The SkyGuardian weighs up to 12,500 pounds, with a wingspan of 79 feet.

Employees of the FAA and General Atomics held meetings in the weeks before the scheduled flight to try to resolve their differences. According to FAA emails, General Atomics was open to using a chase plane — but not for the entirety of the flight. The company wanted to demonstrate that its remote pilots could navigate around airborne traffic just like an airborne pilot.

The regulators were hesitant. They prepared for the possibility that the drone, while in the air, lost connection or malfunctioned. In 2014, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection drone was deliberately drowned outside San Diego after experiencing a mechanical problem.

At times in their communications, the FAA employees were critical of the drone-maker. One complained that the company had “tripped themselves up again.” Another email began with “Oy vey,” followed by “a little vent — with genuinely constructive thoughts.” Everything after that is redacted.

Elsewhere, an FAA employee summarized the source of the tension with General Atomics this way: “They [are] concerned that time will run out and as usual, they have diplomats from the military attending and want to demonstrate the capability.”

The flight that did end up taking place was in the desert between Palmdale, California, and Yuma, Arizona.

Teresa Whiting, a public affairs specialist at NASA, which partnered with General Atomics, said they originally considered flying the drone over San Diego to inspect infrastructure, but that flight path was removed because of “time constraints.” Their partnership was set to expire in September.

General Atomics is open about the fact that it markets drones to the U.S. government and other countries. Brinkley, however, declined to comment on the FAA emails or shed light on which military diplomats were lined up for the San Diego demonstration.

“We do not comment on our specific business operations, in terms of who attended when, for security and privacy reasons,” he said.

But he also said the company has been working with NASA and other federal agencies for years to prove that large, remotely piloted aircrafts can be included in the national airspace.

“We hold the safety and welfare of the public in the highest regard,” he wrote. “Southern California has been the headquarters of our company for decades and thousands of our employees, families and friends live and work in the San Diego area.”

The project first appeared on the public radar in October 2019, when General Atomics issued a press release. At the time, the company said it had scheduled a demonstration for 2020. Although the announcement attracted local and national media attention because of the precedent it would set, the FAA released almost no information about the flight.

Voice of San Diego filed a lawsuit under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act this summer after the agency went radio silent and dragged its feet on a request to produce internal records. FOIA requires a response within 20 business days, but the FAA didn’t begin processing the request until much later.

So far, the agency has released about 500 pages of heavily redacted emails, a fifth of the total in its possession, it says. Initially, U.S. District Judge Nita Stormes ordered that the rest of the documents be released by Oct. 16. She then extended the deadline to Dec. 9, but warned that she may begin sanctioning individuals who cause further delays.

Earlier this month, the U.S. attorney’s office told the court that General Atomics and NASA slowed down the production schedule. At General Atomics’ insistence, the FAA has already agreed to withhold trade secrets and other confidential commercial information.

Both General Atomics and NASA are also trying to withhold portions of FAA emails under a U.S. code that permits the sale and movement of arms to “friendly countries” for their mutual defense. That means the emails need to undergo a special level of review at the Department of Defense. The Air Force is also being consulted.

In the end, the FAA could overturn the redactions requested by General Atomics, but that could also give the company cause to file a lawsuit of its own, furthering delaying the process.

Activists have called attention to the civil liberties implications of putting more eyes in the sky and questioned whether the San Diego demonstration was part of a larger marketing pitch to foreign governments. They’ve pointed to a separate SkyGuardian flight that took place last year between Arizona and Nevada for members of the British and Australian militaries as well as the U.S. Marines.

Weeks after that demonstration, the Australian government announced it would be purchasing the SkyGuardian and developing a $1.3 billion acquisition proposal.

In June, Reuters reported that President Donald Trump was on the verge of reinterpreting a Cold War-era agreement so that U.S. defense contractors, including General Atomics, could sell more drones to less stable governments. He was reportedly under pressure to revamp the nation’s drone export policy from the companies themselves.

The Trump administration went through with the changes the following month over the objections of human rights advocates who warned that it would encourage others to ignore international restraints and fuel instability in the Middle East and South Asia. Military-grade drones, which can carry weapons, were previously classified as cruise missiles.

Just this week, General Atomics kicked off a series of flights involving a similar drone, known as the SeaGuardian, with the Japan Coast Guard. The company wanted to demonstrate the drone’s ability to conduct maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Kara Grant contributed to this report.

Jesse Marx

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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