As tensions between Iran and the United States remain high, the US military is preparing to conduct test flights of drones over major American cities, Truthout reported in January 2020. General Atomics, a US energy and defense company, plans to fly a military-grade version of its SkyGuardian drone over San Diego in 2020. The test flights are an effort to integrate the drones into airspace alongside commercial airlines and will be used to map “critical infrastructure” in San Diego.
The SkyGuardian drone, also known as the Predator B, has a 79-foot wingspan and can surveil the ground from more than 2,000 feet in the sky. It is considered a more advanced version of the Predator military drone, which conducted operations overseas in the US war on terror. However, the Predator B has been designed to be compliant with US airspace regulations, allowing it to be flown over American soil.
According to General Atomics, test flights could result in commercial airspace being opened to drones for the completion of various missions. The version of the SkyGuardian to be used in the test flight will reportedly not be weaponized. The San Diego Union Tribune reported that the drone could be used to support first responders dealing with natural disasters such as floods and wildfires. There is reportedly no intention to sell the military-grade drone to law enforcement agencies at this time. The path and location of the flights have not been disclosed.
However, as Truthout reported, “The Pentagon and defense industry have long sought unfettered access for their drones in civil airspace.” They began working with the FAA to integrate large military-grade drones into US skies after President Obama approved the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012.
Even if they are not armed, the presence of drones in civil airspace raises concerns about surveillance and privacy. As Jeramie Scott, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told Truthout, aerial surveillance opens up “potential abuse from a privacy and civil liberties front,” especially if drone surveillance is combined with other emerging technologies, such as facial recognition, automated license plate readers, and StingRay cellphone tracking devices.
Another source with expertise about drones and privacy concerns is Barry Summers, a researcher studying military drone integration, who told Truthout, “These powerful surveillance tools were developed to track our adversaries overseas… 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.”
Only news articles written in support of the SkyGuardian are featured on the official Team SkyGuardian website and these do not reveal that test flights will be taking place in US airspace this year. A report by the local San Diego CBS News affiliate took a positive tone, hailing drones as an improvement to public safety that could potentially “save your life.” It appears that national establishment news outlets have not covered the plans to test SkyGuardian drones over US airspace.
Source: Candice Bernd, “Large Military-Grade Drones Could Soon Be Flying Over Your Backyard,” Truthout, January 16, 2020, https://truthout.org/articles/large-military-grade-drones-could-soon-be-flying-over-your-backyard/.
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