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A couple of months back I was going on a road trip through California and stopped by a dry lake called El Mirage Lake. It's a very tacky area requiring a permit to enter.

My friend and I showed up near midnight and could hear a VERY low-flying aircraft. I happened to have a flashlight with a 800 m beam distance and using it we could clearly see a Predator drone less than 500 feet over the ground.

The drone was flying an autonomous rectangular course over the lake all night, but the next morning it had changed altitude and was flying a few thousand feet over the lake - high enough that it just looked like a normal airplane.

For 30 minutes or so there was a Cessna following behind it which was very strange... Would it be a human monitoring the drone for some reason?

Anyway, as a current civilian I feel like there's something wrong with military aircraft being used as surveillance over public area, not to mention it seems a little pointless. Why is the government (or at least state of California) using equipment like this for useless reasons?

I have a pretty bad photo of it using a telephoto lens that I can post later as proof that is was actually a Predator drone.

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Just out of curiosity, I'd really like to see the photo. I don't doubt you, of course, but I'm interested. –  Undo Jun 22 at 0:35
    
Similar incident: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/7426/… –  Farhan Jun 22 at 2:15
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You're making a huge leap from "I saw a Predator flying" to "The Predator was on a surveillance mission against the American people." –  David Richerby Jun 22 at 13:56
    
And worse, assuming that such surveillance would be useless. I can see definite benefits of using UAVs with IR scanners for detecting things like marihuana groweries (right now manned helicopters are used for that, UAVs would have more endurance, lower cost, and be less noisy). –  jwenting Jun 23 at 7:11
    
@@KeeganMcCarthy Please don't forget to mark an answer as accepted if you feel it satisfies your question. –  CGCampbell Jun 25 at 12:38

2 Answers 2

up vote 18 down vote accepted

An article from 2001, TESTING SPY PLANES GRAY BUTTE AIRFIELD TO BE REOPENED says,

General Atomics, which makes the Predator in San Diego, has been conducting final production tests and checkout flights at El Mirage, three miles inside the San Bernardino County line.

See also EL MIRAGE FLIGHT TEST FACILITY

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But this is 13 years later... How does this answer the question? –  Peter Mortensen Jun 22 at 9:30
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13 years later, they're still manufacturing them and still test-flying them? –  ChrisW Jun 22 at 9:54
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Because they still need to test the planes built to the old design as they come off the production line, they still need to test any changes to the design and (though it sounds like this isn't relevant to the situation you describe) they still need to train new pilots. –  David Richerby Jun 22 at 14:59

ChrisW's answer covers "why the Predator?" (El Mirage Field is used by General Atomics for test-flying their drones), which makes "Why the Cessna?" easy to answer: if General Atomics is test-flying a Predator drone or variant, the Cessna is probably there as a chase plane to monitor the test.

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In fact, a quick search turned up multiple images of Cessna's used by GA as chase planes. –  MSalters Jun 22 at 22:36
    
I'm pretty sure (can't find proof) that any UAV operating in US domestic airspace must be accompanied by a manned aircraft. –  egid Jun 23 at 1:49
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@egid I seriously doubt that. Maybe if it didn't have a civilian rated transponder and was not operating under military rules. But the USAF has been operating unmanned aircraft without chase planes for decades (often as target drones). –  jwenting Jun 23 at 7:09

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