Military drones will soon be flying over Syracuse

Aug 5, 2013

Central New York's Air National Guard unit, the 174th Attack Wing, will soon be flying drone training flights over a large portion of the city of Syracuse.

The 174th was granted permission from the Federal Aviation Administration last month to expand its permitted airspace south into Oswego, Madison and Onondaga Counties. The airspace includes the northern half of Syracuse and stretches from Camillus to Fayetteville from west to east.

The new airspace will allow the wing to conduct its training with less likelihood of weather impacts, according to wing commander Col. Greg Semmel. He says training missions will begin in the new airspace in about a week.

The map above shows the current military airspace with the expansion to the south. Below, a close-up of the new airspace.
The map above shows the current military airspace with the expansion to the south. Below, a close-up of the new airspace.
Credit Air National Guard

Since the 174th switched from F-16 fighter jets to the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft three years ago, the aircraft have taken off from Ft. Drum near Watertown and flown training missions in military airspace over the Adirondacks and Lake Ontario.

The Reapers will still take off from Ft. Drum for now, according to Semmel, and will fly at 18,000 feet, which is above commercial aircraft. They will also not target civilians or carry weapons, he said.

"From a community standpoint, this will be transparent," Semmel said. "In this chunk of new airspace, I’ll be very honest, they’ll very likely never see the airplane."

The Air National Guard uses contracted civilians to drive around in vehicles for its training missions. Still, with a large city below, there will be a much higher chance of bystanders being in range of the Reaper's powerful cameras. And that has privacy advocates concerned.

"I don't know how that kind of thing is enforced and drones are moving pretty quickly and there are vehicles everywhere," Ann Tiffany of the Syracuse Peace Council said in an interview.

The peace council has been lobbying the city's Common Council to put in restrictions on drone use as their widespread commercial use approaches. A coalition of private companies and universities in upstate New York is currently bidding to become a federally designated drone testing site.

The peace council has also staged numerous protests outside the 174th base at Hancock Airfield in Syracuse. With its pilots stationed here, the 174th remotely flies missions for U.S. military operations overseas, including Afghanistan.

The 174th is in process of working with the F.A.A. to get permission for its drones to take off from Syracuse (Hancock Airfield shares a runway with Syracuse's Hancock International Airport). That could happen some time next year, according to Semmel.