Military spy drones used for non-war purposes over the United States were almost exclusively for disaster relief or during training for natural disasters, according to the Pentagon.
"I can tell you with 100% certainty that these exercises are of a Defense support-to-civil authorities nature. It's (training for or responding to) a natural disaster of some kind, earthquake, flood, hurricane or nuclear-reactor blowing up. Something like that," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, Pentagon spokesman.
The military drones used for these purposes ranged from small, winged aircraft that can be launched by hand to large Predators and Reapers that otherwise fly combat missions in Afghanistan, North Africa and the Middle East. For flights over the United States done to assist civil authorities, the aircraft are equipped only with cameras, typically to provide disaster damage assessments, Crosson said.
A Defense Department Inspector General report made public recently found that while the Pentagon has deployed these drones over the U.S. for non-military missions over the past decade, the flights have been rare and done according to law. The report says there have been fewer than 20 missions between 2006 and 2015.
The analysis describes a complicated process for civil authorities to request access to a military drone with permission necessary from the Defense Secretary in each case. The Pentagon briefly describes on its website a portion of the drone missions that have been flown through this procedure — nine since 2011.
They included search and rescue missions in California last year, disaster response drone missions for fires in California in 2013 and flooding in South Carolina and in the Mississippi River Valley last year.
The U.S. military's Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles or UAV, the largest of the military drones, was used for search and rescue operations in California last year. The Defense Department agreed to allow the Predator drone to be flown last year during a disaster-relief training exercise called Patriot 2015 in Wisconsin.
About 1,500 National Guard troops from different states participated in the event. The Predator flight for that exercise was conducted in North Dakota, said Senior Master Sgt. David Lipp, a media spokesman for the North Dakota Air National Guard.
"I can tell you that we're very, very aware of the public concern over the use of UAVs. And so we are very, very judicious and cautious about using those assets even in an exercise format," said Wisconsin National Guard Maj. Paul Rickert, a media spokesman.
The military drones also have been flown over the U.S. for homeland defense missions and for training by the service branches. The New York Air National Guardhas a wing of Reaper drones.