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Developments at the federal level over the last year could make military-grade drone patrols a more common occurrence in Southern California — but the fact that the public isn’t warm to the idea remains a challenge, according to a San Diego defense contractor’s report.
As part of a national effort to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into the civil airspace, General Atomics proposed flying the SkyGuardian above the city of San Diego in 2020. The company said it wanted to show off the capabilities of its technology to survey infrastructure and the environment, but records obtained by Voice of San Diego last year revealed that it was also interested in catching speeders on the freeway and wooing foreign diplomats.
In the process, General Atomics was attempting to open the skies above U.S. cities to new and unprecedented forms of surveillance. But it was forced to reroute its test flight to the desert after regulators pushed back.
While the new report from General Atomics doesn’t rule out the possibility that the SkyGuardian will one day fly over San Diego’s urban landscape, it lays out a number of ongoing obstacles to getting there, what it calls the “pillars of airspace access.” These are summarized as airworthiness, pilot qualifications and operational approval.
But the fourth and most important, as far as General Atomics sees it, is public perception. Without wide support, the company warned, the entire drone integration project is in doubt.
“Unless the public recognizes the benefits of commercial aviation and accepts the attendant or perceived risks, it would not matter how strong the pillars are,” the report states.
C. Mark Brinkley, a spokesman for General Atomics, said the company has no immediate plans to fly over San Diego.
“We do see a future where routine, efficient [unmanned aerial system] operations in various types of airspace and locations are common and well understood by the public,” he wrote in an email. “The [Federal Aviation Administration] has a detailed process for the manufacturer or operator of any experimental aircraft (manned or unmanned) to fly over densely populated areas, so we would expect them to apply the same rigorous safety standards to us as they would to any aircraft.”
For years, the FAA has been trying to accelerate the integration of drones into commercial society by partnering with state, local and tribal governments, as well as drone operators and manufacturers. The agency has stated outright that its goal is to create “community acceptance of drones operating near their neighborhoods and businesses.”
Chula Vista has been at the forefront of this national effort, earning permission to use small, commercially available drones as first responders during emergency calls. With a wingspan of 79 feet and weighing upward of 12,000 pounds, the SkyGuardian falls well outside the scope of what Chula Vista and other cities are doing.
Chula Vista’s program has plenty of critics and has already sparked a lawsuit, but the opposition to military-grade drones in civilian airspace is on another level. The anxiety is based not only on size and capabilities, but history. The SkyGuardian is a variation of the missile-equipped Predator drone, which was central to the War on Terror and U.S. counterinsurgency efforts abroad.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection dispatched a military-grade drone to Minneapolis last summer following the civil unrest triggered by the murder of George Floyd. The decision to monitor protesters was denounced by the ACLU and members of Congress and caused confusion at the state level, where the governor had recently signed a bill prohibiting law enforcement agencies from using drones and other technologies for mass data collection without a warrant.
There’s also a question of safety. Military-grade drones have crashed on occasion in the United States. In 2014, U.S. Customs and Border Protection deliberately drowned one in the waters outside San Diego following a mechanical failure. Another crashed into a Syracuse, N.Y., runway last summer but the Air Force waited almost a year to tell anyone about it because “it didn’t have any impact on our neighbors or the general public.”
Barry Summers, an activist and researcher who lives in North Carolina, warned last year in an opinion piece for the Washington Examiner that many of the top-ranking people at the FAA overseeing the integration of military-grade drones are ex-military officers. He told me that the agency’s long-term plans are being laid without any public debate.
“As the San Diego fiasco shows, they are just doing it — safety and civil liberties be damned,” he wrote in an email. “Worse still, we are exporting this to allied countries — the ability to treat your own citizens as the enemy.”
Over the last couple years, international press reports show that Australia and others have expressed interest in buying military-grade drones from the United States. One such proposal in India was worth a reported $3 billion.
Under pressure from drone manufactures, the Trump administration in 2020 reinterpreted a Cold War-era agreement to allow companies like General Atomics to sell more drones to less stable governments, Reuters reported. In the meantime, protests have been organized this summer in opposition to test flights over civilian airspace in England and Scotland.
Generally, General Atomics in its report viewed its efforts in San Diego in a positive light because of what it learned about the regulatory process, which it characterized as still being in an infant stage of life.
“We should have expected some teething troubles and allowed even more time than six months before the need date for processing and approval,” the report states.
General Atomics submitted its initial request for the San Diego flight in September 2019, and the negotiations didn’t conclude until shortly before takeoff.
The frustration appears to have been mutual. Emails released through a VOSD lawsuit show that regulators had safety concerns about the drone and expressed frustration over the timeline they’d been given. There was even a suggestion from within the FAA that it had prematurely given the go-ahead on a previous demonstration.
But the report also notes that, in June 2020, representatives from both sides kicked off a series of meetings intended to “reset expectations” and make the approval process easier going forward. General Atomics noted that, while it was disappointed in how the San Diego proposal turned out, the FAA had agreed “to make it possible for [General Atomic] to repeat elements of the [Systems Integration and Operationalization] demo flight as originally planned, at a later date.”
General Atomics proposed a new flight near San Diego but again the regulators said no. The company suggested taking off from the Gray Butte airport in Los Angeles County, crossing over what appears to be Camp Pendleton and down the coast to Point Loma before making its way to Imperial County. Instead, the FAA offered a new route that went eastward, away from California’s second largest city by population — ultimately out to the Grand Canyon — in September.
Looking back, the report noted that though the FAA can’t grant access over restricted military airspace, General Atomics “could have pre-coordinated with military authorities for the date of flight.” Brinkley said the Department of Defense has a process for any civilian aircraft manufacturers and operators to petition for access to its restricted airspace, and the FAA is not necessarily involved.
The report itself suggests that regulators’ concerns weren’t baseless. Specifically, they were worried that the drone might lose connection in a busy air corridor or that the technology capable of detecting and avoiding another object might fail.
General Atomics acknowledged that during the nine-and-a-half-hour flight that took place in April 2020, “there were a few, brief instances” when the display for the detect-and-avoid software cut out for 30 to 40 seconds, “indicating temporary loss of traffic data.” But it also claimed that the pilot did not lose command or control of the aircraft and that the technical issue had since been corrected.
Brinkley told me that the safety of the flight was never compromised and that the onboard transponder and traffic alert and collision avoidance system remained fully functional throughout, “providing the same safety net as onboard all commercial airline flights in the U.S.”
When asked if another possible flight over San Diego was in the works, the FAA’s office of communications deferred questions to General Atomics and confirmed in a brief statement that it “works closely with drone operators to ensure they operate safely.”