The Federal Aviation Administration issued temporary flight restrictions late last week related to pilotless aircraft systems, also known as drones, above the downtown Portland area. The restrictions are in effect until Aug. 16.
The FAA says it issues such temporary restrictions related to hazardous conditions or security concerns. These particular restrictions are for “special security reasons.”
The agency did not specifically say the restrictions are related to ongoing nightly protests in downtown Portland, but its advisory states that if people do not comply with the airspace restrictions, the "Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Justice may take security action," including the seizure, damaging or destruction of pilotless aircraft.
The temporary flight restrictions, restricting aircraft flying lower than 1,000 feet above ground level, began last Thursday, the same day Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf visited Portland.
The advisory also states that pilotless aircraft may fly over the restricted area if they have “an approved special governmental interest airspace waiver that has been granted for operations in direct support of an active national defense, homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue or disaster response mission.”
When asked about the specific reason for the restrictions, a spokesperson with the FAA directed OPB to a contact with the Department of Homeland Security. That agency has not yet responded.
OPB also reached out to DHS’s general media email, which offered no information and referred back to the FAA.
It is not uncommon for the FAA to grant airspace restrictions related to protests. The agency has restricted airspace in past situations, including after protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. In that situation, the FAA had restricted airspace to only law enforcement aircraft following reports of shots fired into the sky.
The FAA also issued a series of temporary flight restrictions in the region of Cannonball, North Dakota, from October through December 2016, during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, according to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union at the time.
More recently, the Department of Homeland Security has used helicopters, drones and other aircrafts over 15 cities where demonstrations have taken place to protest the killing of George Floyd, according to The New York Times.
Locally, Willamette Week reported in June that an aircraft linked to the U.S. Marshals Service circled over downtown Portland protests, though the agency declined to state whether the aircraft was theirs.
“There’s a history of the FAA issuing temporary flight restrictions as part of very dubious efforts to squelch reporting on police behavior,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the national American Civil Liberties Union said. “That history points to some very sharp questions about what the purpose and intent of these flight restrictions are.”
The ACLU of Oregon said federal agencies could violate the First and Fourth Amendments if they are using temporary flight restrictions to limit media and other coverage of protests via drones, or to more easily monitor and track protesters using their own aircraft.
“We know that federal agents have been engaged in wanton violations of constitutional rights in Portland recently,” Stanley said. “And, citizens and journalists are being blocked from using drones from recording what the authorities are up to for no good reason. That is just another constitutional violation on top of what we’ve already seen.”