Public not sold on military drone flights over San Diego, says defense contractor


“We see a future where routine, efficiency [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 (piloted or unmanned) to fly over densely populated areas, so we expect them to apply the same rigorous safety standards to us as they do to us. ‘any plane.

For years, the FAA has attempted to accelerate the integration of drones into industrial society by partnering with state, indigenous and tribal governments, in addition to drone operators and producers. The company has categorically stated that its goal is to create “community acceptance of drones operating close to their neighborhoods and businesses.”

Chula Vista has been at the forefront of this national effort and has been granted permission to use small, commercially accessible drones as first responders during emergency calls. With a wingspan of 79 feet and weighing over 12,000 pounds, the SkyGuardian sits far outside of what Chula Vista and various cities do.

The Chula Vista program has a lot of criticism and has already sparked a lawsuit, but opposition to military-grade drones in civilian airspace is to another degree. Nervousness is not based solely on measure and ability, but on the historical past. The SkyGuardian is a variant of the missile-equipped Predator drone, which was at the heart of the US war on terror and counterinsurgency efforts abroad.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent a military-grade drone to Minneapolis last summer in the wake of civil unrest sparked by the homicide of George Floyd. The choice to watch the protesters was denounced by the ACLU and members of Congress and sparked confusion at the state level, where the governor had just signed an invoice prohibiting law enforcement companies from using drones and other applied sciences for warrantless mass information collection. .

There is also a question of security. Occasionally, military grade drones have crashed in the United States. In 2014, U.S. Customs and Border Protection deliberately drowned one in waters outside of San Diego following a mechanical failure. Another crashed into a Syracuse, NY runway last summer, but the Air Force waited almost a year to notify anyone 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 most of the top FAA people overseeing the mix of military-grade drones are former military officers. He informed me that the company’s long-term plans are made without public debate.

“As the San Diego fiasco shows, they are just doing it – to hell with security and civil liberties,” he wrote in an email. “Worse yet, we are exporting this to allied countries – the ability to treat your own citizens as enemies. “

Over the past two years, press reviews from around the world show that Australia and others have expressed curiosity in purchasing military grade drones from the United States. One of those proposals in India was for $ 3 billion.

Under pressure from drone makers, the Trump administration in 2020 reinterpreted a Cold War-era regulation to allow companies like General Atomics to sell more drones to less stable governments, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, protests have been staged this summer to oppose control of flights over civilian airspace in England and Scotland.

Overall, General Atomics in his report saw his efforts in San Diego in an optimistic light because of what he found out about the regulatory process, which he described as still in a phase of the life of all. -small.

“We should have expected start-up problems and allowed even more time than six months before the required date for processing and approval,” the report said.

General Atomics submitted its preliminary application for the San Diego flight in September 2019, and negotiations were not concluded until shortly before takeoff.

The frustration seems to have been mutual. Emails launched via a VOSD lawsuit showed regulators had safety concerns with the drone and expressed frustration with the time frame given to them. There was even a suggestion from inside the FAA that it had prematurely given the green light to a previous demonstration.

But the report further notes that in June 2020, representatives on each side launched a sequence of conferences intended to “reset expectations” and streamline the approval process. General Atomics said that while disillusioned with the outcome of the San Diego proposal, the FAA agreed “to allow [General Atomic] repeat elements of the [Systems Integration and Operationalization] demonstration flight as originally planned, at a later date.

General Atomics has proposed a new flight near San Diego, but once again regulators have said no. The company recommended taking off from Gray Butte Airport in Los Angeles County, crossing what appears to be Camp Pendleton, and descending the coast to Point Loma before heading to Imperial County. Instead, the FAA provided a brand new route that headed east, away from California’s second largest metropolis by locals – finally to the Grand Canyon – in September.

Looking again, the report celebrates that although the FAA could not allow entry into restricted Navy airspace, General Atomics “could have pre-coordinated with military authorities for the date of the flight.” Brinkley said the Department of Defense has the ability for all producers and operators of civilian aircraft to apply for entry into its restricted airspace, and the FAA just isn’t primarily concerned.

The report itself means that regulators’ problems were not unfounded. Specifically, they were concerned that the drone might lose connection in a busy air hall, or that the know-how capable of detecting and avoiding another object would fail.

General Atomics acknowledged that throughout the nine-and-a-half-hour flight that occurred in April 2020, “there were a few brief instances” where the sight and avoid software show was reduced for 30 to 40 seconds, “indicating temporary loss of traffic data”. But he further claimed that the pilot had not lost command or management of the aircraft and that the technical matter had since been corrected.

Brinkley informed me that the flight protection was in no way compromised and that the onboard transponder and the visitor alerting and collision avoidance system remained fully practical throughout, “providing the same safety net. safety only aboard all commercial airline flights in the United States “.

When asked if another feasible flight over San Diego was underway, the FAA communications office deferred investigations to General Atomics and confirmed in a quick assertion that it “works closely together with drone operators to ensure they are operating safely. “

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