Border UAVs to fly in June

Officials at the Border Patrol, part of the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, will start using two leased unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on the Arizona/Mexico border next month, an agency official said.

The vehicles will be the first UAVs used outside of the military and in operational missions within the country by DHS. They will support the department's Arizona Border Control Initiative announced in March to combat illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorist activity in the Border Patrol's Tucson, Ariz., sector, said a top agency official.

"Securing the nation's border is the primary mission of Customs and Border Protection," said Michael Wimberly, chief of the Border Patrol's Air and Marine division in El Paso, Texas. "Commissioner Robert Bonner believes in this technology."

The agency will operate two UAVs over the border from June to September at a cost of $4 million, he said. The aircraft look like big model airplanes that carry cameras and sensors to monitor people and vehicle movements. It sends the images to personnel monitoring the situation from the UAVs' ground control station or an agency facility.

Bonner approved the use of UAVs to start monitoring the United States' southwestern border this summer. "Border protection is our highest priority," Wimberly said. "It can save lives, too."

After studies and demonstrations last year, Border Patrol officials determined they required a UAV already in production that can remain airborne for 10 hours. They wanted one that can be programmed with a flight path and can fly without a ground controller. Most UAVs used in Iraq and Afghanistan require an operator seated in a ground trailer who remotely flies the aircraft.

So officials searched existing government contracts with UAVs and chose the Defense Department's Joint UAV Program administered at the Fallon Naval Air Station, Nev., which flies the Hermes 450, a medium-sized UAV manufactured by Elbit Systems Ltd. in Haifa, Israel, Wimberly said.

About 12 Border Patrol agents and officials from Elbit's office in Fort Worth, Texas, will operate and maintain the two UAVs. The agency wants to fly them eight hours per day, seven days per week, with one aircraft in flight while the other gets prepped to relieve it, he said.

Customs and Border Protection participates in DHS' Executive Steering Group, which ensures that UAVs work with other drone aircraft in the department. Lessons learned from flying the Hermes 450 will help DHS officials make an informed decision when it buys UAVs next year, Wimberly said.

"We said why not get a jump start on the initiative," he said.

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