Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is flying a Predator drone, military technology used for surveilling and killing terrorists abroad, over Minneapolis as protesters continue to demonstrate against police brutality, according to publicly available flight data. The drone flown over Minneapolis is an unarmed version of the aircraft.
The drone was first spotted on a flight tracking tool by members of the ADS-B Exchange, a community of flight watchers who use open-source flight data to monitor America's skies. Presumably, the drone is surveilling protests there, though CBP did not respond to a request for comment about what the drone is doing there.
"CBP Predator Drone CPB104 circling over Minneapolis at 20K feet," Jason Paladino, an investigative reporter at The Project on Government Oversight tweeted on Friday. "Took off from Grand Forks Air Force Base."
These latest protests come after a white police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, earlier this week. The officer and three others involved in the incident were fired; on Friday, the Associated Press reported that the officer who knelt on Floyd's neck had been arrested.
Motherboard verified the flight path of CPB-104 with flight data from ADS-B Exchange, a repository of unfiltered flight data. The drone took off from the Air Force Base before making several hexagonal-shaped flyovers around Minneapolis, according to the data. At the time of writing, the drone is still above the city.
CBP-104 is a drone with a history. In a 2007 Popular Mechanics article, author Jeff Wise names that aircraft as a Predator. "CBP-104 has no pilot on board. The plane is a Predator B, a sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)," the article says, describing a surveillance action on the U.S.-Mexico border.
CBP-104 is also named in daily drone flight logs from CBP from 2012, published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The drone's activities at the time included collecting synthetic-aperture radar imagery and full-motion video to aid in actions such as surveilling the border, as well as surveilling and busting cannabis grow ops and methamphetamine labs. In one instance, the logs note that the drone continued to circle and feed video to officers until every suspect in a lab raid was arrested. According to the logs, this ongoing surveillance "played an invaluable role" in the arrests.
In an online chat with Motherboard, Paladino also pointed to the aircraft's previous flights along the Canadian border, its near perfect hexagonal flight path, and its constant altitude of 20,000ft mentioned in the flight data as additional evidence that the aircraft is a drone.
Motherboard has previously visited Grand Forks Air Force base, where remote pilots fly unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drones (also known as Predator drones) and Global Hawk drones both domestically and abroad. Its pilots operate out of trailers there, and Customs and Border Patrol has a presence at the base; it flies its Predator drones along the US-Canada and US-Mexico borders, but has also been known to operate them domestically in the interior of the country, as it is currently doing over Minneapolis.
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Unarmed Predator drones were first used within the United States in 2012, when the Department of Homeland Security flew one over the property of a cattle farmer named Rodney Brossart to surveil him, and to help end a 16-hour standoff between him and another rancher over a stolen-cattle dispute. The use was highly controversial at the time; since then, CBP has used drones hundreds of times, and has not kept very good records about their use.
In 2015, the FBI surveilled Black Lives Matter protests using aircraft over Baltimore after people there protested the police killing of Freddie Gray.
After the publication of this piece, CBP confirmed it operated an unmanned aircraft over Minneapolis.
“Earlier today a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations unmanned aircraft system was preparing to provide live video to aid in situational awareness at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis. The unmanned aircraft system provides live video feed to ground law enforcement, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, while minimizing the threat to personnel and assets,” a CBP spokesperson wrote.
"After arriving into the Minneapolis airspace, the requesting agency determined that the aircraft was no longer needed for operational awareness and departed back to Grand Forks. CBP AMO routinely conducts operations with other federal, state, and local law enforcement entities to assist law enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts. AMO carries out its mission nationwide, not just at the border, consistent with federal laws and policies. During humanitarian missions AMO regularly deploys the unmanned aircraft system to assist FEMA in assessing hurricane affected areas, in coordination with the National Weather Service to capture imagery of storm impacted areas, and with federal, state and local partners to conduct search and rescue missions, in addition to its law enforcement mission," the spokesperson added.
Updated: This piece has been updated to include comment from CBP.