How Fake Drone News Begins

When drone news seems questionable, it's always a good idea to get the facts.
By Patrick C. Miller | January 19, 2017

The use of drones by protesters and activists during the ongoing demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in south central North Dakota has created controversy, particularly after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued temporary flight restrictions for the area which have since expired.

Earlier this week, I took note when stories began to appear online about the North Dakota National Guard deploying a mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) system north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Allegedly, it was being used to shoot down the DJI Phantoms protesters have employed, not only to document incidents, but also to spy on and harass law enforcement authorities.

When I looked at photos and a video posted on Facebook, the vehicle certainly looked like an Avenger air defense system operated by the North Dakota National Guard. I knew that in an anti-aircraft role, the vehicle is typically armed with Stinger SAMs and a .50-caliber machine gun.

I wondered how it made sense to use a sophisticated $38,000 heat-seeking missile to shoot down a small, cheap drone that would be extremely difficult to detect with radar and probably has little, if any, heat signature. For that matter, why use a heavy machine gun when a shotgun firing birdshot would do?

One pro-environment website claimed that the Avenger was equipped with a high-energy laser weapon specifically for the purpose of downing small drones. Social media once again lit up with hostile reactions to charges of excessive force and intimidation against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as well as the protesters supporting the tribe.

To get a better understanding of what was happening, I spoke to Staff Sgt. Eric Jensen, deputy public information officer with the North Dakota National Guard. I learned three important facts. The first was that the Avenger vehicle had already been removed to deescalate tensions. The second was that the vehicle hadn’t been equipped with any lasers, machine guns or missiles.

“There are no munitions with that piece of equipment,” Jensen told UAS Magazine. “In fact, there aren’t any in the entire state of North Dakota since they’re controlled by the United States Army. We don’t have authority to arm them or even the means to do it.”

Third, Jensen said the vehicle’s purpose for being near the protest sites had nothing to do with drones or air defense. He explained that it’s equipped with a thermal imaging sensor known as a FLIR (forward-looking infrared) device. The Guard was using the vehicle’s night vision capability to detect potential trespassers and protect construction workers and equipment on private property.

“It was out there basically to passively observe what was going on,” he said.

One could argue that putting a National Guard SAM system called the Avenger in this particular situation was perhaps not the best idea. Throughout the standoff, the protesters and activists have taken to social media to spin every confrontation and provocation as an overreaction by county and state law enforcement authorities.

Why give these groups the opportunity to do it again? Removing the Avenger shortly after it was spotted creates the perception that someone in charge knew its presence was a potential problem, but they elected to use it until it was discovered and its presence made public.

On the other hand, I can’t really blame the Guard and law enforcement for using the resources they have available to monitor a serious situation created by the federal government—a dangerous standoff during which federal agencies have steadfastly refused to provide any personnel, equipment or financial assistance to keep the peace or provide public safety.

The area where this activity is occurring is far from civilization. This winter, the region has been subjected to blizzards, below-zero temperatures and extreme wind chill conditions. Using the Avenger and its FLIR sensor as a warm, mobile night observation post does make sense.

“With temperatures getting down to 45 below zero, it’s nice for our soldiers to be able to get inside that vehicle and stay warm while they’re out there,” Jensen noted.

Who wouldn’t prefer to be in a warm vehicle rather than outside during frigid weather? My guess is that law enforcement personnel and Guard members would much rather be spending the North Dakota winter nights with friends and family in their communities, not freezing their butts off in the middle of nowhere because some protesters refuse to leave, even when asked to by David Archambault, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman.

There are lessons to be learned from this on both sides. North Dakota officials should recognize that deploying military weapon systems will trigger a negative public response—even if they are unarmed and aren’t being used for their primary purpose. The protesters and activists should learn that blowing every incident out of proportion ultimately hurts their credibility and their cause.

Finally, consumers of drone news should be skeptical of claims, charges and allegations that simply make no sense. It’s always good to get the facts before jumping to conclusions.