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July / August 2004


Unmanned aerial vehicles support border security

They look like oversized remote controlled model airplanes, and in a sense they are—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the latest tool in enhancing border security. Conceptually, UAVs are simple—the Department of Defense defines them as a powered aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, and can be either expendable or recoverable.

On June 25, 2004, the Department of Homeland Security announced that UAVs would be used to support the Arizona Border Control Initiative, a seasonal effort to curb smuggling of human cargo across the most dangerous stretch of the U.S. border. The UAV flights will be controlled and monitored by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Patrol through the summer of 2004.

Border Patrol agent uses a remote control to steer an unmanned aerial vehicle.
Photo Credit: Gerald L. Nino
Border Patrol agent uses a remote control to steer an unmanned aerial vehicle.

UAVs supplement current technology being used for U.S. border defense—the helicopters, planes, tower-mounted video cameras, ground sensors, night-vision goggles, and portable lifts that provide Border Patrol agents with a more commanding view of the border. This technology extends the eyes of Border Patrol agents in the vast, largely remote areas of the southwest border. Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security said, “The development of UAVs in protecting the borders of the United States demonstrates the commitment this Administration has to test new technologies and systems to better secure America. This is another example of the Department’s support to gain operational control of the Arizona Border.”

Eye in the sky

Traditionally, UAVs have been used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles in military settings. For example, they were used in Vietnam and the Balkans, and they have played an important role in recent conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in both Gulf Wars. Use of UAVs on the southern land border is the first non-military use of this technology.

Drones, as they are sometimes called, are equipped with sophisticated on-board sensors that literally provide an overview of border activity. Live video feed and communication systems allow for real time communication with ground control stations so that resources can be sent where illegal smuggling is occurring.

After the initial tests of UAVs in the Tucson Border Patrol sector, Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar commented, “By launching an unmanned aerial vehicle that has the capacity to put eyes on a sensor and see what set it off, we will now be able to make a determination of whether our interest is there. We can see whether the person or persons are armed. We will be able to gauge our response more appropriately.”

Hermes 450

The Border Patrol will use the Israeli-built Hermes 450 model, a single engine system with a lightweight composite structure. It can be airborne for up to 20 hours, much longer than any other airborne technology, and can reach speeds of 95 knots (125 miles per hour) and cruise at 70 knots (91 miles per hour.) The Hermes can fly at heights up to 18,000 feet but will generally operate at about 9,500 feet for the ABC project, monitoring areas where there is little infrastructure and where it is difficult to position land patrols.

Benefits of UAVs

UAVs are equipped with image recognition systems and sensors that can detect movement, read a license plate number, or even identify vehicle occupants from 15 miles away. Infrared sensors provide day and night imaging.

One advantage UAVs have over manned aircraft is their ability to hover for extended periods of time, up to 20 hours of flight endurance. By comparison, a Blackhawk helicopter can only hover for two hours and 18 minutes. The longer UAV dwell time allows it to patrol for longer periods of time, providing more sustained coverage over vulnerable border areas.

In addition, a UAV’s range in comparison with agents on ground patrol or stationary surveillance equipment is a clear benefit. A UAV equipped with thermal-detection sensors can track a violator through woods or mountainous areas. Using UAVs will also reduce the burden on human resources at the borders and increase safety. Remotely piloting a UAV from a ground control station has obvious safety advantages over a helicopter pilot flying in less than optimal conditions.

Already a success

As of July 20, 2004, there have been 42 apprehensions directly attributable to UAV surveillance. While every case may not be as dramatic, the following example, reported by The Arizona Republic, clearly demonstrates the UAV’s ability to track in remote areas, strategic use of resources, and enhanced officer safety.

On July 24, 2004, a Border Patrol UAV assisted in a border arrest. A Fort Huachuca police officer was chasing a suspect who was driving in a stolen truck. The suspect turned down a dirt road, running the officer off the road. The officer called the Border Patrol for back-up. The Border Patrol's Hermes 450 UAV spotted the pickup truck on a remote dirt road and tracked it. The truck had stopped and people were jumping out and running into the brush. A Border Patrol helicopter had to drop two agents into the area because traveling on land was too difficult. The smuggling suspect came out of the brush and started throwing “softball sized” rocks at the helicopter’s main rotor blades. The suspect was apprehended and arrested and will face "destruction of a federal aircraft," "felony alien smuggling" and "re-entry of an aggravated felon" charges. LK

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