As the U.S. military and defense contractors eye a potential drone war with Iran as tensions with the country remain elevated, the defense industry is also preparing to test-fly domestic versions of its combat drones over major American cities in an effort to fully integrate military-grade drones into civil airspace alongside commercial air traffic in the coming years.
That’s right, those robotic killing machines used for counterterrorism strikes in the Middle East are coming home — and could eventually be used to surveil large protests and communities of color throughout the U.S.
The Poway-based defense contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., will test-fly its SkyGuardian drone, outfitted with a 79-foot wingspan and advanced surveillance capabilities of more than 2,000 feet, over San Diego, California, sometime this year.
The SkyGuardian, also known as the MQ-9B or Predator B, is an advanced version of the Predator military drone used overseas in the war on terror but designed to be compliant with regulations for U.S. airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted the drone experimental certification in October 2018, according to a spokesperson for the agency’s drone integration office.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, General Atomics did not disclose a date or flight paths for the drone but said it will be used for “mapping of critical infrastructure” in the region and displaying the drone’s civilian capabilities. The version the company intends to test-fly will not be weaponized, although the company advertises a weaponized version on its website.
The test flight “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 told the Union-Tribune. The company did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.
General Atomics’s initiative is being planned without any real involvement from the city or the FAA. According to the Union-Tribune, no city official is overseeing the test flight, and the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office (UASIO) told Truthout last year that while, “The UASIO is engaged in internal FAA discussions to approve the proposed concept of operations for the SkyGuardian over portions of San Diego, … this demonstration is not part of any UASIO project.”
The head of the branch within San Diego’s Economic Development Corporation supporting General Atomics’s upcoming test flight has assured the public that the effort is not intended to create an atmosphere of mistrust, and that it is not the defense contractor’s intention to sell military-grade drones to law enforcement agencies.
But an article by Defense One points out that General Atomics officials want the SkyGuardian to freely fly in American skies by 2025, and one of the drone’s biggest selling points is its FAA stamp of approval coupled with its intelligence-gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance abilities — including signals intelligence. Larger drones may appeal to police departments over smaller, more common quadcopters, as they can stay in the air for days — in SkyGuardian’s case, up to 40 hours.
In fact, SkyGuardian’s endurance represents a dramatic advantage for police departments as a replacement for human-piloted helicopters, which are limited by how long the pilot can stay in the air. Using SkyGuardian, police would be able to silently monitor suspects or protests for up to 40 hours and stream high-resolution video to police from more than 2,000 feet above.
“What large drones actually make possible is true persistent aerial surveillance, because they’re likely to drive down the cost…. It’s much more expensive to do it with a manned airplane where you actually have to pay a trained pilot, and you have to switch pilots every so often,” says Jeramie Scott, the director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
Scott points to the persistent aerial surveillance that was conducted by a private company — Persistent Surveillance Systems — in Baltimore in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray protests in which military-grade surveillance equipment originally developed to track roadside bombs in Iraq was attached to small Cessna airplanes.
Now, military-grade drone integration in civilian airspace is rapidly advancing without substantial public debate regarding the privacy and civil liberties implications of normalizing military surveillance technologies over American cities.
Military Drones Come Home
The Pentagon and defense industry have long sought unfettered access for their drones in civil airspace, and began working with the FAA to integrate large military-grade drones into U.S. skies after President Obama signed the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act into law.
Since then, the goal has been to develop adequate “detect-and-avoid” technology to prevent midair collisions, making military drones safe to fly alongside commercial air traffic in the National Airspace System (NAS). Defense contractors have jumped into the fray, with General Atomics leading the way in designing a large drone that could pass the FAA’s civil certification standards.
While much focus has centered on the FAA’s integration of smaller drones for civilian and commercial use into the NAS, the Pentagon’s plans to fly hundreds of larger drones, including General Atomics’s Global Hawks as well as MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, has largely escaped public scrutiny. In fact, the 2012 Modernization Act never specifically mentions military drones. Still, the conference report on the bill laid out that the FAA was directed to work with the Defense Department “to certify and develop flight standards for military unmanned aerial systems and to integrate these systems into the NAS.”
According to a spokesperson for the FAA’s drone integration office, the agency does not require civil certification of aircraft used for public operations in the U.S., instead looking to the public aircraft operator, such as the Air Force, to ensure the aircraft used is airworthy. Still, the FAA doesn’t allow the military to fly large drones in the NAS without a special permit called a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). The FAA approved General Atomics’s SkyGuardian drone, however, under civil experimental certification for a private company.
There have been some exceptions. Unarmed Predator drones have long had special permission to patrol the nation’s borders. Likewise, the California Air National Guard already uses Predator-class drones on wildfire missions, where their advanced capabilities can help firefighters track where wildfires might spread and target their hottest spots.
The 2012 law also directed the FAA to select six test sites to conduct integration research, and in late 2013, the FAA announced state programs in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia. The agency later added a seventh program in New Mexico in 2016.
While the seven test programs are affiliated with state universities to research and test commercial and civilian drone applications, the programs have all, at one point or another, been run by retired military officers and some have operated on military sites, according to Barry Summers, a North Carolina-based researcher studying military drone integration. Those sites include testing of “non-FAA” drone operations at Area 51 in Nevada.
Since the 2012 Act, advancements in ground-based and airborne detect-and-avoid technologies, as well as an integrated traffic management system have seen major breakthroughs, leading legislators in the House to specifically include collision-testing and risk-assessment provisions for military-grade drones operating in civil airspace when drafting the 2018 FAA Act. However, those safety provisions were later stripped out of the version passed by the Senate, and President Trump signed the bill into law in October 2018. That same month, the FAA’s Phoenix Manufacturing Inspection Office granted General Atomics’s SkyGuardian experimental certification.
In 2019, the FAA approved 639 public COAs for drone flights in the NAS operated by government entities, and 10 civil COAs, according to the integration office. The agency did not differentiate how many of those waivers were for large, military-grade drones. Moreover, it does not track the number of COAs it issues for test flights, such as the upcoming SkyGuardian flight over San Diego.
Most recently, the FAA announced the introduction of a new rule last month that would allow the agency, as well as local and state law enforcement and federal security, to be able to remotely identify drones. The new rule comes as residents in five counties in Northeast Colorado continue to spot large drones flying in grid-like formations in the evenings. Their operator, however, still remains a mystery.
SkyGuardian, the U.S. and Iran
Retired Air Force colonels and other ex-military officials have largely led the think tank responsible for advising the FAA’s drone integration efforts — the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) at the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Congress established the Center of Excellence in 2014 to coordinate the research efforts of the agency’s seven drone test sites.
From September 2014 until June 2016, retired Air Force Major Gen. James Poss, the former assistant deputy chief of staff of U.S. Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, led the FAA’s ASSURE as executive director. During his time at the Air Force, Poss oversaw the development and deployment of the most advanced drone surveillance technology in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Poss now runs his own intelligence and drone consulting firm. He argues that the U.S. and its Western allies should gear up with the SkyGuardian in order to have an edge in a potential drone war with Iran. In an op-ed he penned for Inside Unmanned Systems, he writes:
“the SkyGuardian meets British and American civil aviation airworthiness standards, meaning it can fly integrated with even civilian manned aircraft. It has a much longer range, adverse-weather features and carries the MBDA Brimstone missile — another weapon that can ripple fire against multiple moving targets. All these changes have given the [Royal Air Force] a drone force that would be better suited for maritime combat than American MQ-9s in a prolonged contest with Iran.”
He explained his argument further, telling Truthout that while civil certification is not necessarily needed for combat, the navigation fitout that is required for flying in civilian airspace is superior, and that the drone gives Western allies an advantage when it comes to using the drone in domestic training exercises.
“The reason so many people including myself are pushing civil certification for large drones is first and foremost safety. Once we get these rules written down and once we figure out how to fly these things, everything is going to be an order of magnitude safer,” Poss says.
For drone-integration researcher Summers, however, advancing military-grade drone integration is not just about safety issues related to opening American skies to drones, but is also “about expanding American drone technology worldwide.” General Atomics, which manufactured the MQ-9 Reaper that carried out the targeted assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani, wants its SkyGuardian “to be essentially the drone of choice for all American allies,” Summers says.
Indeed, the U.K. Ministry of Defense decided to purchase 16 SkyGuardian model drones, renamed “Protectors,” in April 2016, and Australia has already followed suit.
No Privacy Debate in Sight
Domestic military drone integration is advancing on both sides of the Atlantic in a trend that should have privacy experts and technologists on alert.
According to EPIC’s Scott, who was heavily involved in pushing the FAA to adopt the remote ID rule that is now in the works, there isn’t yet a legal precedent for military-grade drones flying over civilian areas and private residences. In fact, there is almost no expectation of privacy in backyards and fenced-in land — as they are considered open areas, as established by the 1989 Supreme Court case Florida v. Riley. Moreover, the only legal restriction that applies to police helicopters — a rule against flying so low as to constitute a “home invasion” — wouldn’t apply to drones flying at 2,000 feet.
Scott also warns about the ways in which large drones can be combined with other emerging surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition, automated license plate readers and StingRay cellphone tracking devices — all technology widely used by domestic law enforcement agencies that originated with the military.
“Although I may go out in public and necessarily expose myself to public view to some degree while I’m at a specific location, we don’t have the expectation that your travels in the public space in their entirety would be collected and potentially analyzed,” Scott says. “Since there are no rules in place, it opens aerial surveillance up to a lot of potential abuse from a privacy and civil liberties front. So obviously law enforcement may use it for their purposes, but you can also have companies who are going to collect a bunch of data and decide what to do with it later.”
In fact, such surveillance capabilities are very much a part of what’s being studied at the FAA’s seven test sites. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released January 9, GAO officials surveyed one user of the FAA’s test site in New York, who told them that the “test site had tested communication equipment and detect-and-avoid capabilities on large [drones] that they manufacture and sell to other entities for conducting surveillance activities, such as drug interdiction.”
Another potential threat is the possibility of the military using large drones to conduct routine surveillance operations over civilian areas under homeland security justifications. In fact, the military has already been conducting large drone operations over urban or urban-adjacent areas for years.
Still, Poss says, routine military operations over civilian airspace are less likely since, according to him, the airspace is difficult to get into and it’s less safe for military operations. “We’ve got our own airspace,” he says. Further, he says, civil certification isn’t required for military operations anyway since they can just fly under a COA.
“The problem isn’t that there is military involvement [with drone integration] to a certain degree because of their expertise with large drones,” says Scott. “The larger issue is that there isn’t that counterbalance at all in any way with other experts — privacy advocates, for instance — to raise potential issues and risks as the FAA works toward integration of drones in the national airspace.”
Indeed, the FAA has largely passed the buck on privacy issues, as a spokesperson from the drone integration office told Truthout that, “The FAA’s mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world, and does not include regulating privacy.”
While large domestic drones will eventually provide many benefits to society, including large, commercial passenger operations and improved firefighting and other disaster response efforts, integration is moving forward with little to no public involvement.
“These powerful surveillance tools were developed to track our adversaries overseas. What will this do to the psyche of a free society, knowing that an eye in the sky is making a permanent record of your every move?” Summers tells Truthout. “This is a watershed moment in our right to not be under constant government surveillance. At the very least, there should be a robust public debate.”