Border Patrol at 19,000 Feet Along Texas Border
A Predator UAV climbed into the early morning Arizona sky June 1 and headed east to conduct the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s first surveillance flight along the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas.
Cruising at 19,000 feet, the Predator B’s camera fed a stream of video images to operators back at Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and to U.S. Border Patrol agents at posts along the flight path between El Paso and Big Bend National Park, where the UAV had to turn around.
The flight was months in the making as members of the Texas congressional delegation pressed the Federal Aviation Administration to permit pilotless aircraft flights in Texas’ crowded airspace.
Texans were demanding the Predator surveillance flights as a rising tide of drug-fueled violence swept along the Mexican side of the border and occasionally splashed over into Texas.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said Predator flights were needed to help law enforcement officials catch illegal immigrants “and to protect communities from the violence associated with narco-terrorism and drug and arms trafficking.”
Hutchison, who is attempting to get $144 million budgeted for UAV operations in Texas, said, “We must employ state-of-the-art border monitoring and security techniques.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, called the UAV flights “a critically important new means for providing homeland security in Texas.” UAVs flying along the Rio Grande “will gather real-time intelligence on the ground to augment” the work of law enforcement agents on the border, he said.
Predators have proven valuable for patrolling the border in Arizona, New Mexico and California, where they have been operating since 2005. They are credited with contributing to the seizure of more than 25,000 pounds of marijuana and the arrest of more than 5,000 illegal immigrants. In 2006, a patrolling Predator crashed in the Arizona desert.
Operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, the Predators provide persistent surveillance day and night with a combination of optical and infrared video cameras and surface search and ground moving target indicator radars.
Watching video as it is being shot from more than three miles up, border patrol agents can tell the difference between heavily laden drug smugglers and casual hikers, CBP officials say.
The UAV is equipped with a laser illuminator that can be locked on targets. The light is invisible to the eye, but to border agents with night vision goggles, smugglers hiding in the dark stand out as if illuminated by a spotlight.
The border agency flies Predator Bs, which are 36 feet long, have a 66-foot wing span and weigh 10,500 pounds. They’re powered by 900-horsepower turboprop engines developed specifically for long-endurance flights. Each aircraft costs more than $10 million.
Endurance is a key UAV advantage. The Customs and Border Protection agency says its Predator Bs can stay aloft for up to 20 hours. UAV maker General Atomics says the Predator B can fly for more than 30 hours. It can fly up to 50,000 feet.
Manned aircraft flights typically are much shorter. The maximum flight time for a Black Hawk helicopter, for example, is two hours and 18 minutes.
The CBP says Predator Bs allow border agents “to safely conduct missions in areas that are difficult to access or otherwise too high-risk for manned aircraft or CBP ground personnel.”
But restrictions imposed by the FAA may limit the Predators’ usefulness in Texas.
For example, the unmanned planes generally won’t fly at night, a congressional aide said, even though night is when illegal activity along the border is greatest. That restriction was ordered because the FAA wants the UAVs to be watched carefully by air traffic monitors, but many of the control towers in the small airports near the border do not operate at night, the aide said.
“The goal is 24-hour operation on the border, but that will take more assets,” he said.
A key concern for the FAA is how well unmanned and manned aircraft will mix. There is a lot more air traffic in Texas than in Arizona or New Mexico, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.
There are no automated crash avoidance systems for Predators or other UAVs.
“The technology does not exist. That’s one of the challenges that exists” in allowing UAVs to fly in Texas.
There are others, according to congressional staffers who met with FAA officials to work out operating rules that led to an FAA “certificate of authorization” to fly UAVs from El Paso to Big Bend.
Predator operators in Arizona had to identify in advance where they would land their UAVs should they become disabled in flight over Texas, a staffer said. And they had to work out agreements so that the UAVs would be watched by air traffic controllers at all times during their flights.
In New Mexico, Arizona and California, where Predators are already operating, there is plenty of government-owned land where disabled UAVs could ditch if necessary. In Texas, by contrast, most of the land along the border is privately owned and actively used, a staffer said.
Hutchison said she hopes the FAA’s approval to fly Predators between El Paso and Big Bend will lead to flights later this summer along the entire 2,000-mile Texas-Mexico border. Texas lawmakers want to establish a Predator operations center in Corpus Christi.
“We hope this provides a precedent” for greater use of UAVs across the United States, an aide said. Police agencies have already expressed interest in using UAVs for surveillance. And oil companies want to use them to inspect offshore drilling rigs, he said.
The U.S. Forest Service has used a modified Predator B to map forest fires. And Brown of the FAA said they have been used for damage surveillance after recent hurricanes, the earthquake in Haiti and the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Predators are used to patrol parts of the northern U.S. border with Canada, and the Coast Guard has tested them in Florida for search and rescue operations and to spot drug smugglers.
The Congressional Research Service issued a word of caution in a 2008 report about increasing UAV use. Although UAVs are substantially less expensive to buy than manned aircraft, they cost more to operate. That’s because a single UAV requires up to 20 support personnel, the CRS said. And limited tests by the Department of Homeland Security showed UAVs were less effective than manned aircraft at supporting the apprehension of unauthorized aliens.
By WILLIAM MATTHEWS