General Atomics’ SkyGuardian drone, a non-weaponized variant of the military’s MQ-9 Reaper, last week completed a test flight through civil airspace from Palmdale, California to Yuma, Arizona, the company announced.
The April 3 flight demonstration, sponsored by NASA, marks a further step in the planned integration of drones into the National Airspace System.
General Atomics said the flight test of SkyGuardian, a large unmanned aircraft with a 79-foot wingspan, was intended to demonstrate “the safe and effective integration of the air-to-air radar, [collision avoidance, and other systems] to successfully conduct aerial inspection and surveillance of critical infrastructure. . . .”
“This type of commercial mission has never been done with a UAS anywhere in the United States — it is a first of its kind and will serve as a proof of concept for future, similar commercial UAS missions,” General Atomics added, with some hyperbole, in an FCC license application for the test.
If it was “a first” — because it involved the “commercial” surveillance of critical infrastructure — it was not in itself a huge qualitative advance. Several previous SkyGuardian tests have been conducted in the national airspace system, including a July 2018 flight across the Atlantic from North Dakota to England.
What would have been unprecedented is if the test had occurred over the densely populated area of San Diego, as was originally proposed. That would have required approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“If the FAA has given General Atomics approval for them to operate their newest drone over a major metropolitan area, this is one of the last hurdles to military surveillance drones being allowed to operate freely over the entire domestic United States,” said researcher Barry Summers, who has tracked the development of the program.
But as far as can be determined, the original flight path above San Diego was not taken last week.
The FAA has been quite stingy about providing the public with information on drone development, the Government Accountability Office observed recently. “FAA reports limited public information about how test sites’ research relates to the agency’s integration plans. Agency officials told GAO they were wary of sharing more information about the test sites, citing concerns about, among other things, protecting test site users’ proprietary data.”
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Much work remains to be done to understand the potential impact on society of the widespread use of unmanned aerial systems, the National Academies of Sciences said in a recent study.
“Research should be performed to quantify and mitigate noise impacts, including the associated psychoacoustic and health effects. Societal impacts on areas such as privacy, intrusion, public health, environmental aspects, and inequity should also be points of focus for this collaborative research,” the NAS said. See Advancing Aerial Mobility — A National Blueprint, February 19, 2020.
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For now, drone technology is advancing faster than the capacity to regulate it. Privacy is a special concern. “These eyes in the sky could become spies in the sky,” said Rep. Ed Markey at a 2018 Senate hearing on integrating drones into the National Airspace System that was published last month.
“Drones could use facial recognition to identify everyone walking on Main Street and selling that geo-location information to advertisers. It could use plate readers to know everyone who visits a health clinic and selling that sensitive information to insurance companies,” Rep. Markey suggested. In the wake of recent scandals, “the American public wants robust privacy protections, not voluntary guidelines,” he said.
Other critics have similar concerns.
“The surveillance hardware developed for these weapons in conflicts overseas can produce a detailed video record of an entire city,” said researcher Barry Summers. “The database is searchable in real time or at a later date. Meaning, the government would have a permanent record of the movements of millions of innocent Americans. We live in an age where we know that any surveillance capability that can be abused, has been abused.”
The domestic use of drones by the Department of Defense is governed by 2018 guidance issued by then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
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The development of drones for civilian applications builds upon, and remains coupled to, military drone operations.
SkyGuardian itself, like the MQ-9 Reaper, is derived from the Predator drone. Today, SkyGuardian drones are being actively marketed to the UK Royal Air Force, as well as Belgian Defense and the Australian Defense Force.
A Government Accountability Office report noted that at least one UAS manufacturer that is flying aircraft at FAA national test sites has its eye on foreign military markets. “One user we met with is developing a large UAS with surveillance and other capabilities to be used solely for military purposes abroad,” GAO said. The user was not identified in the GAO report.