The Pentagon’s drones are an iconic symbol of war abroad, plane-sized matchsticks with wings lurking over cities and countrysides waiting for the moment routine patrol becomes un-routine. For the most part, the missions of those drones have remained abroad, but over the years the Department of Defense has flown drones a handful of times over the United States in support of civil authorities here. From 2011 to 2017, the Pentagon reports just 11 total domestic drone missions.
But in 2018, that total doubled, with 11 domestic missions flown by military drones.
On Jan. 11, the Department of Defense published its 2018 statistics. The drones involved include everything from MQ-9 Reapers down to DJI Phantoms, and involvement in missions ranging from training exercises to border security and emergency response. (Notably, drones operations by the Department of Homeland Security are excluded from these statistics). These numbers are helpfully collected and contrasted with domestic drone use by by the military from 2011 to 2017 by Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard University.
In 2018, military MQ-9 Reapers flew five missions over the United States, four of which were in support of forest firefighting in California and Oregon. One Reaper mission, flown from May 7 to May 10, was described as incident and awareness exercise in the state of New York. RQ-11B Ravens flew two missions, one a base installation in Bangor, Kitsap, Washington, and the other was a Defense Support of Civil Authorities mission in response to Hurricane Florence and requested by the South Carolina National Guard.
In addition, DJI Phantoms flew two missions stateside for the military in 2018: installation support at Camp Pendelton and air show support on behalf of DoD public affairs at Cherry Point in North Carolina. An MQ-1C Gray Eagle was on call throughout 2018 in support of southern border security missions, and an RQ-21 Blackjack was requested by Customs and Border Patrol for counterdrug operations from November 2017 through to March 2018.
Those use cases roughly match up to how the Pentagon used drones at home between 2011-2017, with the exception that 2018 saw far more border monitoring. The Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA used DJI Phantoms and NOVA III drones for flooding-related missions in South Carolina in 2015. The Corps of Engineers additionally used those drones after flooding Mississippi in 2015-2016, and for Civil Works operations from 2016-2017.
While using military drones for border monitoring took on a prominence in 2018 that it lacked earlier this decade, it’s not entirely unprecedented. The Marine Corps deployed RQ-2 Pioneer drones on the border in 1990, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2002.
These missions all feature drones used exclusively as surveillance platforms. The trend upwards in use suggests that we may see more drone flights carried out by the military in support of local authorities, especially along the border, in the years to come.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.