Some of the flight paths taken by a USAF surveillance plane over the last week or so.
Some of the flight paths taken by a USAF surveillance plane over the last week or so. flightaware.com

Since July 24, a military surveillance plane has been flying circles over the Puget Sound Region, usually taking off at Boeing Field. Maybe you’ve spotted it through the haze of wildfire smoke. The plane is gray and bumpy, with all sorts of gadgets attached.

I learned about the aircraft from Tyler Rogoway, a journalist who covers military technology for a website called The War Zone (under Time Inc.). Rogoway has spent his life geeking out over “all domains of warfare, from space to the sea, with a focus on military aviation.” He describes the plane, named SPUD21, and its potential capabilities in an article published yesterday.

I’m easily spooked, so the idea of a spy plane hovering over my city concerned me. I’m also clueless when it comes to military technology, so I called up Rogoway this morning with questions. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows:

How did you discover that a surveillance plane is making trips around Seattle?

There is a large community of aviation fanatics. These people are into flight tracking. They like to see what airplanes are doing. This particular aircraft was tracked over Seattle for multiple days. We started looking into it more deeply. After, I looked at the information and thought, “Wow, this is odd." It’s at least not a normal occurrence we see. 

Who’s operating this thing?

We inquired, not just with the Pentagon, but all the different special operations command, to say, “Can we have some information?" Or even, "Is this aircraft yours?" The answer was confusion. There wasn’t even denial. We couldn’t get anything. They didn’t know what was going on either. 

What exactly is this plane capable of?

There are two levels that is likely capable of it. What I talk about in the piece is something called Wide Area Aerial Surveillance. That is a technology built out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s basically an array of cameras positioned together in one or two apertures. Software stitches all those video feeds and imagery together so you have one super-high definition look over a huge area. It could be five-by-five or ten-by-ten miles. We’re talking about a city here. Not just a block. There are software tools that are created so the system can track things like a car. Someone on the ground with a tablet or someone in DC with datalink technology could pull up different parts of the city at any given time. 

Imagine looking at a big map of the city and saying, "I want to look at that building right there." The array is recording the whole map. It’s really sci-fi. It’s amazing this technology exists.

Why is this important? Overseas, this is important to capture patterns of life and target bad guys. It’s very effective at that. But it’s come home now. This is not classified technology. Commercial operators have it. Using big data, you’re able to record a whole city’s movements at one time. Let’s say somebody robs a bank. Someone could pull up this data and not just see where this car went after it left the bank, but you could also rewind the tape and see where the car has been over the last day, the last month. It is game-changing technology that will not just change how we fight overseas but also how we are surveilled here at home. It's also probably how law enforcement is going to work in the future. 

And the other level of capability?

Alternatively, it could also have a very high definition camera system that can look at a target at one time and monitor a target for a very long time. It could look at a block overtime. That’s the lower end if it doesn’t have this higher-end system.

Why Seattle? Do other cities have surveillance aircraft flying circles around them?

This thing has supposedly showed up in other places. The reality is these [military] guys have to train somewhere. In Seattle, you have water. You have port facilities. You have high density urban areas. And they're all within the same area. You could see why that would be a pretty cool training ground for these guys, because they can push the systems to the max. It's pretty smoky in Seattle right now. What a great place to test the capabilities of this system in a place that stimulates battlefield conditions where you have smoke in the air. And it’s not clear weather, but it’s hot. Maybe these guys thought, "What a great place to go and refine our skills and learn our mission better in a realistic atmosphere?” That’s just one potential possibility. It’s total speculation. That’s all you can do here.

As far as something nefarious, we can ask, "Well, are they doing a mission or what?" We don’t know that. It’s more likely they’re training and testing their equipment so when they get overseas they could be more familiar with it.

What would be the other scenario?

If they’re targeting somebody. If they’re looking for bad guys. The problem with this sort of aircraft is people can paint all their conspiracy theories on them because there is no definitive answer to what it is. Usually the answer is the most logical. Anybody can log online to look at it. They know that. They’re very good at what they do, these people.

Should Seattleites be worried about their privacy?

I think that’s up to everybody themselves. Everybody has a different idea of what privacy is. I like to tell people, “Be concerned, yes.” We are living in a time where our rights are in question in certain ways. At the same time, the military needs to train.

Maybe they could’ve come out and let people know, so when people came out and saw this thing circling, they’re not weirded out by it. That probably would’ve been smart. But they have to do it somewhere. And you want them to be good at what they do. This is how we don’t go to war, how we don’t invade a country. We can go in and get the bad guy and get out. This is a critical mission capability that seems like it is very useful. It’s a capability that they’re going to want to have.

Some people will say, "There is a camera in the sky and it’s looking at me. That’s no good for me.” That’s valid. I understand that. 

Anything else we should know about aerial surveillance?

There are some uses for this technology that are very promising. The ability to respond to a disaster and find people in need, for example. This technology could do some amazing thing when earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes happen. In the Pacific Northwest, we’re set up for a huge earthquake. Learning how to use this technology for that, if it comes, could be very helpful.