A crowd of about 30 gathered at the Julian Town Hall on Wednesday night (December 4) for the second official meeting of the newly formed Back Country Voices, a group that sprung up in opposition to a plan that would turn most of Southern California into a federal testing ground for unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) of all sizes.
The Federal Aviation Administration is set to select a handful of sites across the country, possibly as early as this month, which will serve as experimental zones for integrating drone technology with traditionally piloted aircraft. Members of Back Country Voices have exposed a host of potential problems they would like to see addressed before any testing begins.
“Our concerns are about safety, privacy, wildlife and, I think most importantly, quality of life,” said local resident Kathleen Bennett when opening the meeting.
Ramona resident Dave Patterson, a longtime drone opponent via San Diego Veterans for Peace, spoke about large-scale drones manufactured by the local firm General Atomics currently being used along the U.S./Mexico border. According to Patterson, immigration officials have said that the drone surveillance is responsible for curbing “one percent, maybe two” of total illegal cross-border traffic.
Despite that limited effectiveness, Customs and Border Patrol officials have in recent years pushed for the purchase of more drones, a move that Patterson questions.
“The Electronic Freedom Foundation found out, via a Freedom of Information Act request that in 2012, ten drones just along the southern border were used at least 500 times by other government agencies,” says Patterson. “This is a problem.”
“What we’re looking for is oversight,” concludes Patterson, who wants to know what information is being gathered by drone, who is using it, and how long it is being stored before acquiescing to expanded drone use over privately owned land.
Gabriela Rivera, a staff attorney with the local American Civil Liberties Union office, was pressed into service as the next presenter, though she said her main goal at the meeting was to listen to community concerns and identify ways in which the ACLU could help.
“It seems like all of the pieces are lining up for the introduction of routine aerial surveillance of the population,” Rivera observed. “The problem is that laws related to privacy protection have been surpassed by technological advances.”
Rivera added that “the ACLU’s concerns are very much aligned” with those expressed by Back Country Voices members.
Bill Everett, a pilot with over 20 years’ experience, was last to talk, sharing insights from someone familiar with flight patterns and the intricacies of San Diego’s already-complex airspace.
Everette expressed a concern that seemed to have been overlooked by many in the focus on government intrusion — hobbyists drone operators.
Camera-equipped recreational drones are already on the market, and a host of videos online show their pilots operating them at altitudes of up to 1000 feet (hobby drones are technically illegal to fly more than 400 feet high). Everett noted that a host of negative outcomes ranging from a high-tech peeping tom to intentionally crashing into other aircraft are likely to result from expanding consumer-drone access.
The meeting then shifted to a public-comment format, with community members asking questions of, and sometimes challenging, the panelists’ statements.