Drone crash raises questions of public safety, privacy

Following the crashing of a drone in Central New York last week, peace activists have questioned the safety and privacy of citizens in Central New York, while local authorities are pushing to make the area drone-friendly.

On Nov. 12, around 1 p.m., an unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed into Lake Ontario about 20 miles northeast of the Port of Oswego during a routine training mission in the approved military training airspace. There have been no reports of injuries.

The drone was assigned to 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air National Guard, based at Hancock Field Base. The drone took off from Wheeler Sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum in Jefferson County. The drone crashed during 174th Attack Wing’s training of MQ-9 pilots and sensor operators for the Air Force.

The official accident and safety investigation of the drone crash is currently in process, which is expected to take about a month.

MQ-9 Reaper drones are used in the 174th Attack Wing for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and attack missions globally.

Local peace activists voiced their concerns on the drone crash, bringing up world peace issues.

The Syracuse Peace Council has advocated grounding the drones.

“This is not an isolated event. Drones do crash. They do get lost,” Carol Baum, a staff organizer of SPC said. “This is not the first time that has happened in the United States and it will not be the last.”

“One of the notorious things about drones and Reapers is their high accident rate,” Ed Kinane, a veteran Syracuse peace activist, said. “A general concern is that because the military is so in love with drones and the Reaper, it appears they have rushed these things into production.”

The U.S. military’s three biggest drones, RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper have been involved in 129 accidents over a 15-year-period until 2012. They have combined to average 9.31 accidents for every 100,000 hours of flying, compared to the fleet-wide average of 3.03, according to military data compiled by Bloomberg last year.

A protest last April outside the Hancock Field Air National Guard Base Hancock Field Air National Guard Base organized by the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars led to 31 arrests.

Currently, Fort Drum is the only spot in New York state where pilots can take off drones, utilizing the Army’s restricted airspace including Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks, since October 2011. The Federal Aviation Association has not approved the takeoff of the drones in Hancock Air Base.

FAA officals said last summer that if the drones are launched out of Fort Drum, they can fly in the Syracuse area, specifically over Onondaga, Oswego and Madison counties.

Baum said this could lead to infringement of individuals’ privacy and freedom of speech.

“What we will be working on in Syracuse right now is a resolution calling for the Syracuse city government to ban drones in the city,” Baum said. “One of the concerns is that drones pick up a lot of information, much of which is the information that typically not obtained without warrants of a judge.”

Local authorities have proclaimed the Central New York area to be the drone-friendly area, despite the concerns of locals.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the hangar project in Fort Drum this month, including the recently built $5.1 million hangar which houses two MQ-9 Reaper drones of the 174th Attack Wings.

“This new hangar is a real asset in improving the training and operations of the New York Air National Guard at Fort Drum,” Cuomo said in a Nov. 5 press release. “This permanent facility provides the 174th Attack Wing with enough space to shelter its aircraft and more effectively train service members from across the country for overseas operations and domestic emergencies.”

The hangar opened on Nov. 5 and was the first part of a two-part hangar development project. The 2014 defense authorization bill, includes money for a $4.7 million two-bay expansion of the hangar in Fort Drum that will house the unit’s third and future fourth drone.

Last September, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) supported a plan to have the Syracuse area become a new test drone site. The selection of the test drone site is dependant upon the FAA’s plan to integrate civil unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace, which will enable civilian use of drones to roam across American skies. Congress has required the FAA to open domestic airspace to private and commercial drones by 2015.

“There are huge applications for unmanned aircraft beyond the military,” Schumer said in a release last September. “If we can become one of these national centers, the potential for Central New York is hundreds of new jobs.”

Schumer also said Central New York is an ideal place for the drone industry as it hase help of academic and industry expertise, diverse testing conditions and a long track for unmanned aerial systems

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, FAA integration is projected to create more than 70,000 jobs by 2017. The total economic impact of the industry is expected to be $82 billion in the 11 years following the integration. The total job creation by 2025 is estimated to be more than 100,000.

Baum said drones should not be used in the area until clear and enforceable rules are in place.

“The capabilities of drones have outstripped the capability of legal system to deal with them,” Baum said. “We’re saying, ‘Put on the break until the legal system catches up and makes some good rules.’”

Baum and Kinane participated in 2013 Drone Summit, titled “Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance” convened in Washington D.C. from Nov. 16 to 17.

Baum said the drone crash in Lake Ontario was not the major issue to discuss since it was an international conference

“There are many people around the world who are against weaponized drones,” Baum said. “The first day was more educational for everybody including some people from Yemen who had experienced drone attacks. The next day, which was an organizing day, people led each other and talked about things going on more in their communities”

The next day, the drone protesters demanded a meeting with Schumer in front of Schumer’s office in Washington D.C., causing four protestors to be arrested.

Schumer’s office has not released a comment on the incident.