Verizon seeks to build Portland drone testing facility for technology that could be used by the Department of Defense
Residents are planning a rally 11/1 to oppose a drone testing facility in one of Portland’s most diverse neighborhoods, citing environmental justice, racial justice, social justice, and quality of life concerns.
Verizon’s subsidiary Skyward is seeking a land use permit and a lease to build a drone testing facility on the Willamette river. Residents of North Portland, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Oregon’s largest city, say they were informed of the planned facility only in the past several weeks.
A coalition of neighborhood associations, nonprofits, and local activists are demanding that the City of Portland deny the permits for the facility due to the lack of regulations protecting people, privacy, and wildlife from emergent drone technology, and the murky impacts of the facility both at home and abroad. Their next major action is a protest on Sunday November 1.
The proposed facility would test drones on Verizon’s new 5G network. Neighbors are concerned about the military applications of drone technology, especially given that Verizon already works with the US Marine Corps to test drones. And, at a contentious community listening session hosted by the Port of Portland on October 27, Mariah Scott, President of Skyward, a Verizon Company, confirmed that "Cellular connectivity could be used by [Skyward partner] Parrot and sold into their Department of Defense partnership."
Speaking to their development of spy aircraft for the US military in 2019, Henri Seydoux, Parrot’s CEO and founder, said: "We also perfectly understand how small unmanned aircraft, such as the Parrot ANAFI platform, has the potential to become a key part of the defense system."
On September 15, 2020, Skyward/Verizon announced a partnership to test the Parrot ANAFI drones Seydoux references. Skyward’s Director of Marketing and Communications Jess Moody admitted in the community listening session to altering the text of the September 15th announcement "yesterday or today" after community members had referenced it as a part of their concerns.
"Frankly, we were all gaslit in this community listening session. Before this altered press release and Parrot partnership were brought up, Skyward’s president told a community member she had ‘no idea’ why there were concerns of military drone testing at this facility," said Michael Pouncil (he/him), a North Portland resident and Chair of Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group. "It became abundantly clear over the course of this session that Skyward is no longer a Portland company, but a Verizon company. Their values have fundamentally disconnected from the values of our city."
The Department Head of Skyward and Verizon’s Aviation Development Centers, known as X, told community members in the meeting that they expected this facility would create "five or ten" new jobs, although they aspired to hire more people "in the years to come."
According to analyst firm Envision Intelligence, military drone applications constitute about 70 percent of the market, with consumer applications just 17 percent and non-military uses like filmmaking and climate modeling in the commercial realm just 13 percent.
"It’s pretty clear to me that we’ve got a regulatory vacuum on this topic at the moment," Chris Smith (he/him), who serves on the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and is running for Metro Council said in a statement. "This may prove to be one of the first cases that prompts the need to consider what kind of regulation, and by whom, is going to be needed for drones."
Smith’s opponent in the Metro Council race, Mary Nolan, joined the community listening session. After at least four participants asked whether or not Skyward’s work would include law enforcement clients or contractors and did not receive an answer, Nolan also asked and also did not receive an answer.
Earlier on the 27th, concerned community members gathered outside of Skyward’s headquarters in downtown Portland to share their concerns.
Art McConville (he/him), NiiMiiPuu (Nez Perce/Cayuse), who serves on the executive steering committee of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, offered a prayer to open the event: "As a small child I grew up sleeping on the Sacred River banks with mountain stones for pillows. It was all we had in those times. Our neighbors were the fish, flowers, animals and birds, and we still have the Sacred Right to stand as before….without the mindless and selfish technology of man to destroy the balance that belongs to us as a People."
"Verizon has an existing contract with the US Department of Defense, and past instances of this relationship have shown how the Dept of Defense is testing 5g technology to improve the surveillance capacity of drones, including facial recognition," said Jesse Braverman (she/her), a member of Portland Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines. "While this possibility is troubling as it stands, it clearly leaves the door open for other uses in the future, including missile targeting. We know that US military drones are used against human rights and land defenders in countries like the Philippines and Brazil, against migrants at the US-Mexico border, and even to identify protesters in US cities like Portland. This is something our city should not be involved in."
Community members are now gearing up for a protest on November 1 at 12 pm at Cathedral Park, a gem of North Portland that neighbors the site. There will be speakers, education, snacks, and chants. Local kayakers are organizing a flotilla on the Willamette River as part of the event, and all those with watercraft are invited to bring their vessels to the Cathedral Park Boat Launch and join. COVID-safe conduct and masks are required for the event. Those interested in attending can RSVP on Facebook or share the petition page with friends for additional information: https://fftf.link/dronespdx
All photos in this article are available for press and individual use. North Portland residents as well as members of the coalition opposed to the facility are available for interviews. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected, or to request additional image sizes.