Proposed drone test site worries the backcountry

Phin and BCVAt the Pines Hills area home of Lisa Elkins, Lisa’s cat “Phineas” relaxes next to a map of California that depicts the area of the state that’s planned for a federal drone test site. Planning how they’ll fight it are local residents John Raifsnider, left, and Laurel Granquist, at right. — Charlie Neuman

San Diego included in one proposed FAA testing site for umanned aircraft systems.

Sometime next year, the Federal Aviation Administration will choose six locations in the United States as test sites for the development of unmanned aircrafts systems, better known as drones.

One of the 25 locations in 24 states being [first] considered includes San Diego County, and that has some local residents concerned about privacy rights and other possible impacts of drones flying over the back country for the next several years. [Honestly, drones are here to stay]

Last year Congress mandated that the FAA establish the test sites” to “help the government come up with rules and regulations by 2015” that will govern the use of drones for civilian and “public safety purposes for decades to come.”

Just this week the FAA released an “unmanned aircraft systems integrations road map” outlining how the government will go about regulating drone use. [the State of California bill was introduced, but legislature adjourned without further action]

It is projected that the use of drones for nonmilitary purposes will explode in the coming decades. Some project the possible economic impacts to be in the tens of billions of dollars range by 2025. [don’t just look at the $$$$$. What about rights to privacy?]

“These test sites will conduct critical research into how best to safely “integrate (drone) systems” into the national airspace over the next several years and what certification and navigation requirements will need to be established,” the FAA said in a news release issued Thursday. [‘Back Country Voices’ and others will see to it they do!]

The proposed test site that includes San Diego County actually covers a huge swath of land — virtually all of the southern half of California excluding the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

It also includes airspace over the Pacific Ocean off the San Diego coast.

In September the county’s board of supervisors sent a letter to the FAA encouraging [unanimous vote] the agency to choose the California “testing area,” saying that San Diego is a hub of the drone industry and that not having a test site here could impact local jobs.

Predator drones

The San Diego region is already at the forefront of drone technology with both General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in Poway (Predator drones) and Northrop Grumman in Rancho Bernardo (Global Hawk drones) being major players in the unmanned aerial defense industry field.

A 2011 economic impact study showed that the industry accounted for 7,200 jobs and $1.3 billion of economic activity locally. [at what cost to our rights to privacy?]

Global Hawk drones

“Supporting the industry’s growth in San Diego is necessary to retain maximum benefit and new jobs,” Supervisor Ron Roberts said in a staff report “prepared in anticipation of their vote in support of the test site designation.”

Following the supervisors’ decision, a group of citizens formed the Back Country Voices in an effort to raise questions about the wisdom of having such an area in their backyard.

“With the anticipated increased commercial usage of drones, many fear our country is becoming ever closer to a surveillance society,” the group said in a news release announcing two meetings to be held in Julian — the first from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Julian Library, 1850 state Route 78 in Julian; the second from 6:30-8 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Julian Town Hall, 2129 Main Street.

One of the speakers at the meetings will be Dave Patterson, a Ramona man who has been monitoring the drone issue for years. The drone expert for a group called Veterans for Peace, Patterson is no fan of unmanned aerial vehicles. For months, Patterson and a small group of others protested on a street corner in the Poway Business Park across the street from the General Atomics headquarters.

“We were trying to get people to think critically about the technology,” he said.

Patterson said there are multiple concerns about the use of drones.

“Personally, I think if we’re relying on the FAA to worry about our privacy, that’s a mistake. They’re worried about airway safety.”

Lisa Elkins is a member of Back Country Voices, which she describes as a leaderless group of a dozen or so people, most from the Julian area, who got together after first reading about the test site proposal in an editorial that appeared in the U-T San Diego in September.

The group is most concerned, she said, about the lack of information and public participation in the test site decisions.

“What are they going to be testing?” she said. “Our biggest concerns are safety, regulation, accountability and privacy. We feel all these drones are basically a violation of our privacy. It worries us that the (FAA) isn’t ready for this… and that they haven’t given any option to the public to voice its concern.”


Patterson said the group is considering filing a lawsuit to delay the test site selection process until more public involvement can be arranged.

“This thing is coming like a freight train,” he said.

But on Thursday, the FAA did release much more information about the test site selection process which will begin in earnest in February. The release includes information about privacy concerns. [the State of California’s bill was introduced, but legislature adjourned without further action]

photo op BCV

UT San Diego photographer, Charlie Neuman, John, Joyce, Bill, Laurel, Ben and Phinnaeus the cat.

“Today, the agency sent a final privacy policy to the Federal Register that requires test site operators to comply with federal, state, and other laws on individual privacy protection, to have a publicly available privacy plan and a written plan for data use and retention, and to conduct an annual review of privacy practices that allows for public comment,” the agency said in a news release. [However, in the State of California, a Bill was introduced, but legislature adjourned without further action.]

If the California testing area is approved it would have as its base the Inyokern Airport in the high desert of Southern California, 100 miles east-northeast of Bakersfield.

According to information given to the board of supervisors, “the request to consider the California test site” was submitted by a coalition of Southern California “entities,” including the San Diego Military Advisory Council, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and San Diego North Chamber of Commerce

Under the proposal, there would be no impact to San Diego County airports and all testing would be banned in Class B airspace, which encompasses the county’s larger airports. [what about our rights to privacy in the back country?]


The majority of testing is anticipated to occur over unpopulated areas. [i.e. the back country]

“Receiving one of the FAA designations will allow for streamlined (drone) development and permitting, while not receiving a designation would incentivize an historically San Diego industry to vacate the region for other jurisdictions, taking its economic growth and jobs to other states,” County Supervisor Ron Roberts said in a letter urging the board’s approval.


Back Country Voices‘ Citizens Concerned About Drones

Dave Patterson | San Diego Veterans for Peace

Press Release – FAA Releases Unmanned Aircraft Systems


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