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Drones Are Controversial But Profitable For San Diego

Above: Veterans for Peace demonstrate against using drones for domestic surveillance August 2012

Aired 8/17/12 on KPBS News.

A veterans group is protesting the proliferation of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. Meanwhile researchers say San Diego reaps significant economic rewards for developing drones.

Veterans for Peace will demonstrate this afternoon near General Atomics in Poway. They are protesting the expanding use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles for both military and domestic surveillance.

Since 2005, the federal government has awarded at least $12 billion in contracts for drones and drone supplies and maintenance. That includes at least $270 million for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's drone program.
Enlarge this image

Above: Since 2005, the federal government has awarded at least $12 billion in contracts for drones and drone supplies and maintenance. That includes at least $270 million for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's drone program.

“Lately,” said Vietnam vet Dave Patterson, “we’ve been hearing about how the Department of Homeland Security has been mixing with local law enforcement and using these drones to survey people’s private property. It’s sort of the straw that broke the camel's back.”

Patterson points out that General Atomics' website says their surveillance technology is available for military and civil decision makers.

There is not enough legislative and judicial oversight of UAVs, Patterson said.

San Diego is a prime location for the development of drones. In fact, a study currently underway by the National University System Institute for Policy Research suggests developing drones and UAVs brings more than a billion dollars a year into the San Diego economy.

Kelly Cunningham of NUSPR said San Diego-based General Atomics and Northrop Grumman are the main developers, but several smaller San Diego defense contractors are also working on UAVs.

General Atomics was awarded a contract to develop the Predator Drone in 1994. GA declined to say how large its federal contracts are currently for UAVs. The company is concerned about the possible impacts of sequestration on its programs. Sequestration is a major mandatory budget cut that could take effect next year if Congress cannot reach a compromise on the budget.

Northrop Grumman developed the Global Hawk, a high altitude surveillance vehicle, in the 1990s. It has suffered cost overruns but the company continues to develop and produce UAVs.

Cunningham of NUSPR said his study of federal defense contract procurement records show Northrop Grumman in San Diego earned contracts worth $1.3 billion each year for the past three years for their work on UAVs.

He said Northrop Grumman appears to have overtaken General Atomics in terms of new federal contracts for UAVS. Even if federal military budget cuts are severe, the market is growing.

“The other aspect of this,“ Cunningham said, “is that other counties are now seeing how well and how much these are being used and are interested in purchasing it, so this is a real growth opportunity for the local defense contractors.”

Dave Patterson of Veterans for Peace said their protest is not against the people working at General Atomics or Northrop Grumman.

“People need jobs, and that’s a good paying job,” he said. ”But we need oversight of these products. There’s no oversight. They are just kind of run amuk!"

Veterans for Peace plans to hold regular protests about the way drones are being used every Thursday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on the corner of Scripps Poway Parkway and General Atomics Way.

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