Photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego was supposed to be the site this year of a major drone project intended to show off the civilian capabilities of military-grade technology for monitoring things like wildfires and infrastructure. The players involved in the test flight obscured its other purpose: catching drivers who speed.

Records obtained by Voice of San Diego show that the city’s Office of Homeland Security had been supportive of General Atomics, a local defense contractor, in its attempt to open the skies above San Diego to new forms of surveillance. They wound up talking last year about how police might benefit from putting a massive vehicle with a camera above the metro.

The SkyGuardian is not an ordinary drone. It weighs upwards of 12,500 pounds, with a wingspan of 79 feet. Its predecessors were developed to help the war on terror, and the company has marketed it as a “persistent eye in the sky” that governments can incorporate into their public planning and emergency response efforts.

In San Diego, officials kicked around the possibility of using the drone for vehicle enforcement on the freeway — but asked General Atomics to withhold that information publicly, omitting one of the reasons they were interested in the test flight.

The company passed along a draft press release to the city in July 2019 looking for feedback. Harrison Andrew Pierce, who worked on aerial systems compliance in the Office of Homeland Security, replied with edits and a few thoughts.

“Since SDPD is not involved in the public safety aspect of this project and IPP, they and the mayor’s office requested no inclusion/indication of public safety-specific use,” he wrote.

With IPP, Pierce was referring to a regional drone integration pilot program that had federal backing. San Diego was acting as an intermediary at the time. He concluded his email to the company: “Please do not hesitate to let us know how we can assist with the operation moving forward or push resources your way.”

Several weeks later, General Atomics announced that San Diego was supportive of the SkyGuardian’s “objectives,” but left out any overt mentions of police or speeding tickets. Instead, the press release focused on the drone’s ability to inspect things like rail and power lines, monitor floods and conduct maritime surveillance.

Behind the scenes, the company was still offering as late as December 2019 — two months after the press release went out — to assist local police with “border traffic surveillance, stoplight functionality, and vehicle speed enforcement.”

In 2019, General Atomics also provided the city with a route that the SkyGuardian could take through Southern California. A preliminary map showed the drone passing by the Ramona Airport and swinging through San Diego’s urban core as part of a loop that extended through Joshua Tree National Park.

A map included in city records showing where General Atomics planned to fly the SkyGuardian in Southern California.

The camera attached to the SkyGuardian would have required automatic license plate reading software to identify automobile owners from 12,000 feet up. The company did not respond to questions.

In an email, Gustavo Portela, senior press secretary for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, disagreed with Voice of San Diego’s assessment that the city downplayed its interest in using a military-grade drone to conduct vehicle speed enforcement, but did not provide additional information.

General Atomics has been fairly open about its desire to put military-grade drones — known in other forms as hunter-killers, equipped with Hellfire Missiles — in the hands of local cops. SDPD is at least aware of the optics of putting weapons of war above the heads of people at home.

When asked last year about the city’s connection to the SkyGuardian, Capt. Jeff Jordon, who manages special projects for the police chief, told the Union-Tribune he hadn’t heard of the drone but assumed the public wouldn’t react well to it. “People are concerned about the smart streetlights, so I can only imagine how they would feel about these,” he said.

Despite all the interest locally, the test flight never took place over San Diego. General Atomics wound up re-routing the SkyGuardian to the desert in April after the Federal Aviation Administration expressed safety concerns.

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Voice of San Diego also revealed that General Atomics was planning to use the test flight to impress foreign diplomats in the market for military-grade drones. The Trump administration loosened restrictions on arms sales last summer, setting the stage for deals with Australia, Taiwan and others.

By the time the SkyGuardian took off in April, San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security had nothing to do with the demonstration. Records show that the project was transferred to the city’s Economic Development Department. After a change in city leadership, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit that connects government officials with businesses, was also brought into the fold.

The Economic Development Corporation became the local entity coordinating the integration of commercially available drones — which are considerably smaller than the SkyGuardian — into everyday life here. Support for this wider effort came from more than 20 organizations, including the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center, a federally recognized hub of intelligence and investigative support.

UC San Diego Health, for instance, has used drones to deliver medical specimens and supplies. Uber has experimented with food deliveries. Apple, according to city records, has expressed interest in conducting “behavioral analysis of cars vs. pedestrians” to build an autonomous vehicle, while the Padres wanted a better sense of “what they can do to handle drones, especially when they crash into their stadium.”

In December 2019, the Economic Development Corporation met with General Atomics but declined to provide any direct support for the SkyGuardian test flight because it is not a commercially available vehicle and therefore its mission fell outside the scope of what was already happening locally with drones.

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

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