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Military-grade drone will fly over San Diego next year

Military Grade Drone (Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/WikiCommons)

The skies are clear for a local defense contractor planning to test fly large military drones over San Diego next year.

Poway-based defense contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., in partnership with NASA, developed SkyGuardian drones, which it says are improved versions of the Predator, its military drones associated with the War on Terror.

People involved in the demonstration next year say the SkyGuardian — a drone with a 79-foot wingspan and surveillance capabilities of over 2,000 feet— will be used for “mapping of critical infrastructure” in the San Diego region. The path and location of the flights were not disclosed.

General Atomics’ goal is to integrate SkyGuardian drones into American skies in a variety of ways in coming years. A test flight in San Diego will figure prominently in demonstrating the drones’ civilian capabilities, the company said.

“Accomplishing this goal could open the skies to a multitude of missions that could be carried out using large (drones), including broader support for first responders contending with natural disasters such as floods and forest fires,” a General Atomics spokesperson said in a statement.

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Some city officials and tech experts say they were not aware of the initiative.

Two City Council members, Monica Montgomery and Chris Ward, said they did not know about the initiative and wouldn’t comment on it. The other seven members of the council directed the Union-Tribune to other city officials or chose not to comment.

The SkyGuardian (sometimes called the MQ-9B or Predator B) is a relatively new product by General Atomics. Small adjustments were made to the Predator design to make the drone compliant with regulations for American flight paths. General Atomics advertises its unmanned aircraft as “civilian airspace compliant.”

A General Atomics fact sheet says the drone can be used for firefighting, border patrol and humanitarian assistance by various government agencies. The fact sheet also says the SkyGuardian’s intelligence-gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance abilities were developed to support a variety of homeland security and other non-military roles.

“Predator B is closely associated with military missions, the air vehicle performance and sensor-carrying capabilities it offers make the airframe a natural choice for a wide spectrum of non-military uses,” the fact sheet said.

While General Atomics’ press release said the city supports the initiative, there is no city official overseeing the test flight, according to the city’s public information officer. Instead, a branch within San Diego’s Economic Development Corporation, a privately funded non-profit focused on bringing jobs into the region, is helping support the drone initiative on behalf of the city.

The branch is the federal Integrations Pilot Program (IPP), which oversees the use of drones by agencies in San Diego County. It is supposed to connect General Atomics with potential clients who are interested in the “survey opportunities” the test flight will offer, officials said.

The Integrations Pilot Program’s Project Manager, Katelyn McCauley, said that while General Atomics is not an IPP partner, it supports the initiative because of the company’s long history with drones.

The general intention, she said, is not to create mistrust with the public. The defense contractor does not intend to surveil people, she said, and there is no intention to sell military-grade drones to law enforcement agencies.

“They (the drones) do have some capabilities for law enforcement, but none of it is pertaining to surveilling,” McCauley said. “It’s a very strong, hard line here in San Diego, as well as in the country, that drones are not to be used for surveillance purposes. Just because the capability exists, (it does not) mean we are encouraging any of our partners to use that capability.”

A list of partners that have agreed to the SkyGuardian test flight was not provided.

An article by Defense One said General Atomics officials want the SkyGuardian in American skies by 2025. Company officials, when asked questions by the Union-Tribune, would not confirm that timeline and declined to respond to follow-up questions.

The company said in a June press release that it has conducted more than 100 test flights of the SkyGuardian worldwide to demonstrate its inspection and surveillance capabilities.

Some privacy experts are sounding alarms about the drones’ capabilities, especially if it will fly in American skies.

Lucy Suchman, an expert in human-computer interactions, including drones, said in an interview that having a drone with the SkyGuardian’s capabilities in urban skies like San Diego’s is “bizarre.”

Companies like General Atomics, she said, are selling surveillance technology to non-military buyers by claiming the public should feel “tremendously insecure.” She called that message dangerous.

“There are commercial interests who want to promote and expand these technologies and are very irresponsibly looking for areas of application where they can claim these technologies are solutions to (a) problem,” said Suchman, a professor of anthropology science and technology at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, she said, an argument could be made for drones’ use in emergency situations —like fires — when waiting for satellite imagery would not be practical.

Technologist Seth Hall, who organizes the local advocacy group TechLEAD San Diego, said the public was kept in the dark on other occasions when the region has implemented surveillance technology. He sees a similar pattern with the SkyGuardian.

“This is just the latest of examples on how surveillance technology is invisibly deployed,” Hall said. “Whenever we discover it we’re told, ‘Don’t worry about it. We got it. Everything will be fine.’ It starts to feel like we’re a frog in a pot of water, and we’re thinking ‘the temperature is not too bad.’ I just don’t know if the public knows how quickly this intrusive surveillance technology escalates.”

The San Diego Police Department was at the center of controversy earlier this year over the $30 million smart street lights initiative, which was proposed to City Council in 2016 as a way to reduce energy. The lights’ smart sensors record and collect data on parking, vehicle and pedestrian counts, air temperature and pressure, and humidity. They also record video.

A year after the smart lights’ implementation, San Diego police were using it as a crime-solving tool, drawing criticism from some who noted that law enforcement’s use was not discussed in public nor approved by city officials in advance. Three city council members called for a moratorium on the program.

This time the San Diego Sheriff’s Department says it is not interested in using drones like the SkyGuardian. And San Diego police Captain Jeff Jordon said he had not heard about the SkyGuardian but believes the public would not react well to a military-drone above the city.

“People are concerned about the smart street lights, so I can only imagine how they would feel about these,” Jordon said.

Hall is skeptical. He said that while law enforcement may say there is no interest in drones now, that could easily change. After all, he said, license plate readers, which were initially a military-grade technology, are used now by local and federal law enforcement agencies.

He said a lack of public discussion about what technology is implemented in the San Diego region leads to “eroding relationships” with law enforcement.

“It doesn’t matter if the police department doesn’t want it or not; it’s a question for the public,” Hall said. “It’s a question for San Diegans — do we want it? Do we want to be policed that way? It’s not up to the police; it shouldn’t be their call.”

Barry Summers, a North Carolina-based researcher who studies the trend of military-grade drones being introduced into American airspace, agreed.

He said in an interview that military-grade drones were made for surveillance in warfare but are being used to violate Americans’ rights.

“Allowing this powerful surveillance technology to be turned inward on American citizens isn’t something that should happen without a robust public debate,” Summers said. “The implications for civil liberties are too profound. We live in an age where every capability to spy on innocent Americans that can be abused, has been abused.”

General Atomics said its goal is to tackle the challenges preventing commercial unmanned aircraft from operating in civilian airspace, including getting certification for the drones and employing technologies for their safe operation in air traffic.

“NASA and (General Atomics) have a shared goal of seeing UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) fly safely and unencumbered…” said Linden Blue, CEO, of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. “GA-ASI has worked with NASA for more than five years on this goal and we’re excited to participate in their next set of demonstrations.”

The Department of Homeland Security already flies Predators over parts of the U.S.- Mexico border. And the California Air National Guard uses Predator-class remotely piloted aircraft on wildfire missions.

In an August 2017 demonstration, General Atomics flew a SkyGuardian from Yuma, Arizona to the company’s airstrip in Grey Butte in Palmdale, after it received a waiver from the Federation Aviation Administration. Defense One’s technology editor, Patrick Tucker, wrote about the high-tech demonstration.

“The newest version of the (drone’s) camera has 720p HD resolution, enough to show faces in a crowd from 2,000 feet up. And the optics are rapidly improving,” he wrote.

Other kinds of drones — commercial drones and consumer drones— are already common in American skies. They’re smaller, much lighter weight, and fly closer to the ground than military-grade drones.

The SkyGuardian is more technologically advanced and can remain in the air for 40 hours.

General Atomics advertises a weaponized version on its website. The version expected to be used in the San Diego test flight next year will not be weaponized.

McCauley said the SkyGuardian test flight will not cost the city any money, since the project is funded by General Atomics and NASA. A date for the test flight has not been decided, she said.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune