From: The Post-Standard, at Syracuse.com, by Dave Tobin, Feb 6, 2011
If you feel like you’re being watched while floating in a canoe or driving along some lonely road in the Adirondacks this summer, you might be right.
In June, the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Fighter Wing in Syracuse plans to begin regular unmanned surveillance flights from Fort Drum over the Adirondacks.
The training mission of the drones, called Reapers, will mark the first ongoing flights east of the Mississippi with aircraft that don’t have people in them.
The 174th’s New York flights will train pilots (who remotely fly the planes) and sensor operators (who monitor video shot from the plane). The Reapers, or MQ-9s, will be controlled from a station at Hancock Airfield, the same place from which the 174th is flying Reapers over Afghanistan.
The New York flights will not be armed and should be undetectable by those on the ground.
The new training mission shows the Syracuse air guard unit’s prominence in the growing role of unmanned military aircraft. It also hints at the looming issues of civil liberties and air safety that come with government surveillance by unmanned aircraft over American soil.
MQ-9 Reaper Video Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection The MQ-9, or Reaper drone, is an unmanned aerial vehicle that the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard plans to begin flying from Syracuse in training missions over a portion of the Adirondacks this summer. For the past year the airwing has been flying Reapers from Syracuse over Afghanistan. U.S. Customs and Border Protection already flies the MQ-9 along U.S. land borders. The drone can stay in the air up to 20 hours. It has highly sensitive optical, infrared and synthetic aperture radar sensors that can see in great detail from miles away. Video courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Watch video
U.S. Customs and Border Protection flew an unarmed MQ-9 over northern New York for 30 days of testing during the summer of 2009. That craft launched from Fort Drum and was operated from North Dakota and Arizona.
The agency’s seven MQ-9s regularly fly along the southern U.S. border and the northern U.S. border west of Minnesota. With its highly sensitive cameras and radar, the drone can “see” people crossing a border 20 miles away, said John Priddy, the agency’s director of air operations in Grand Forks, N.D.
The border patrol hopes to regularly fly MQ-9s over northern New York by 2016. When that happens, the agency plans to operate them from North Dakota, Priddy said.
The FAA, which has created an Unmanned Aircraft Program Office, has been cautious about allowing unmanned aircraft flights in unrestricted airspace. There is no reliable technology to help unmanned aircrafts “sense and avoid” other aircraft.
The MQ-9’s accident rate is seven times the general aviation rate, and 353 times the commercial aviation rate, based on a few thousand hours of drone flights by the border patrol.
At a Jan. 13 presentation to the Adirondack Park Agency, Col. Charles “Spider” Dorsey, the 174th Fighter Wing’s vice commander, touted the safety of Air Force MQ-9s. His data, based on about 70,000 flight hours, comes from the military’s experience flying mostly in war zones where there is almost no commercial or civilian traffic.
U.S. Air Force Reapers like this one at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., are capable of carrying both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.
The Air Force Reaper’s accident rate is similar to the F-16 fighter jet for the same number of hours flown, Dorsey said. The Air Force and Air National Guard have had 10 major accidents with the Reaper (causing death, permanent disability or the plane’s destruction). Seven were caused by human error, three by aircraft malfunction, he said. Most came during landings.
Once the “sense and avoid” issue is resolved, domestic use of drones is expected to rise rapidly, according to the FAA.
As of Dec. 1, the FAA had issued 273 authorizations to fly at least 72 different types of unmanned aircraft. Some are the size of birds and launched by hand. The Miami Dade police department recently bought a RQ-16 T-hawk drone, which takes off vertically, looks like a small robot and can fly as high as 10,000 feet for more than 40 minutes.
The 174th Fighter Wing has been flying the heavily armed Reaper in Afghanistan since December 2009. The 174th’s Hancock base is one of six sites in the nation from which Reapers in Afghanistan are flown.
For the northern New York training missions, the 174th Fighter Wing has requested permission initially for Reapers to fly above 18,000 feet, over general aviation planes. When “sense and avoid” gear develops, the 174th plans to fly at lower altitude.
Practice following cars
The Reapers’ high altitude and relative quiet make them hard to detect, which has contributed to their heavy use for surveillance in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, where the CIA flies them.
An unarmed Reaper can fly up to 20 hours, cruise at roughly 180 mph as high as 40,000 feet, loitering over targets.
For training maneuvers over New York, the Reapers will randomly follow vehicles or circle over buildings, giving pilots and operators experience watching something on the ground, Dorsey said.
A possible exercise might be to sight “the next car driving north across the Black River out of Castorland, and track that vehicle as it makes turns, goes under trees and behind barns,” Dorsey said.
Would someone know they were being watched? asked Leilani Crafts Ulrich, an APA commissioner.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection imageAn MQ-9 drone’s imaging equipment snapped this electro-optical image of a scene 12 miles away. The imaging equipment includes an infrared device.
“No,” Dorsey said. “They’d have no way of knowing they were targeted.”
During training, Reapers will not monitor specific people or places, Dorsey said. Department of Defense regulations prohibit targeted surveillance of U.S. citizens in training missions.
However, DOD does allow exceptions with approval from the secretary of defense. In such cases, surveillance data is turned over to agencies such as border patrol, FBI, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Coast Guard, the regulation states.
Use by police agencies
At Fort Drum, a new $2.7 million Reaper hangar and control station is planned to be built at Wheeler Sack Army Airfield by 2012, said Lt. Col. Fred Tomaselli, military airspace manager for the N.Y. Air National Guard.
For live missile training, the 174th is seeking permission to fly Reapers within a small restricted flight zone over Fort Drum and eventually over part of Lake Ontario.
Similar training observations over the Adirondacks were made by pilots of F-16s, which the 174th flew for more than 20 years, Dorsey said. The 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard still flies F-16s over the Adirondacks.
By 2014, the 174th plans to fly Reapers inside the same flight zones that F-16 fighter jets flew, a broad expanse over the Adirondacks and Lake Ontario, as well as between Syracuse and Fort Drum.
The guard doesn’t have FAA approval to fly drones between Syracuse and Fort Drum. When Reapers need to be moved, they are taken apart and trucked.
The 174th Fighter Wing has a school to teach Reaper maintenance in Syracuse. It is seeking approval for a flight school to teach pilots and operators. Students could include military personnel from Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada and Turkey, according to Air Force documents.
Months ago, the 174th wing commander, Col. Kevin Bradley said his unit plans to have three cockpits (or control stations) at Hancock, each responsible for up to four Reapers overseas. Maj. Jeff Brown, spokesman for the Fighter Wing, would not say whether the 174th had met its goals.
Police agencies in Texas, Maryland, Florida and Colorado are already flying some version of unmanned air vehicles, the Washington Post recently reported. At this point the FAA grants authorization to police agencies on a case-by-case basis.
In New York state, the 174th could be called upon by state or civil authorities to fly Reapers during emergencies, Dorsey said.
“Let’s say Nine Mile Point (nuclear reactor) suffered a major radiation leak, he said. “You wouldn’t want a manned aircraft up there monitoring it.”
–Contact Dave Tobin at email@example.com or 470-3277.