Air Guard unit authorized to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones in Syracuse region

An MQ-9 operated by the 174th Attack Wing at Wheeler Sack Army Airfield, Fort Drum

The commander of the Air National Guard unit that operates remotely piloted drones from its central New York base held a news conference to discuss the expansion of the airspace in which it operates.

Col. Greg Semmel of the Air National Guard's 174th Attack Wing spoke to the media Monday morning at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, to announce the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the use of 20 nautical miles more of air space for training missions, including, for the first time, parts of Onondaga and Madison Counties, and more of Oswego Counties. Semmel says the added airspace means fewer missions will be scrubbed or delayed because of weather, especially in lake effect season, when some parts of the current training range in the Adirondacks and over Lake Ontario get shut down by snow.

The group that's been protesting drones at Hancock calls the news 'very distressing.' Ed Kinane,with Upstate Drone Action, says 'they add to the surveillance state. We've recently heard about the NSA and how it's able to surveil all our communications. The drones are the hardware of the military side of that."

Semmel says there are limits on what the drones will do: no use for law enforcement, no use for surveillance of private citizens or their property (Semmel says they contract with companies that provide people and vehicles on the ground that will be used to train for surveillance) and no carrying of live weapons, except for missions on Ft. Drum airspace. The National Guard resources could be called up by the governor to survey from the air for disasters like flooding. The planes will fly at 18-thousand feet, in airspace designated for military flight and Semmel says they'll be virtually invisible from the ground below.

The drone training flights have been doing two missions daily, using about four planes. Right now, they're based at Ft. Drum's airbase, with trainees going to and from the Watertown area daily. Within the year, it's hoped the drones will also get FAA approval to land and take off from Hancock, which will also cut down on transportation costs.

In June, Upstate Drone Action called on the Syracuse Common Council to declare the skies over the city a "Surveillance Drone Free Zone" citing privacy laws. On Monday, Councilor Jake Barrett told us that proposal is still under consideration, though members of a business coalition appeared before councilors at the same hearing, saying it's competing against other regions to be designated as a test site for the development of unmanned aircraft by the FAA. 'How does that square with civil libertarians?" he asks. "That's what our democracy is about, working out some of these kinks."

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