UAVs tested for border protection

Most military unmanned aerial vehicles require an operator to fly the aircraft using computer systems in a ground trailer. But officials at Border Patrol, part of the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, want a more sophisticated UAV that agents can guide during missions using programmed flight paths.

This capability will allow the agency to keep agents in the field doing what they do best: detecting and deterring illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorist activity along the U.S. border with Mexico, according to agency and industry officials.

The Border Patrol will start flying two UAVs over the agency's Tucson, Ariz., sector next month.

The flights mark the first use of robotic aircraft in operational missions by the agency within the United States. DHS' Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement flew a UAV for 17 days in October 2003 to monitor the Arizona/Mexico border, said an official in BICE's Air and Marine Operations business division in Tucson.

"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. Customs "Commissioner Robert Bonner believes in this technology."

So does DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, who visited the Army's UAV Training Center last December to watch the aircraft in flight, said Mark Farrar, director of the facility at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

The Border Patrol will operate two UAVs over the Arizona/Mexico border from June to September as part of the department's new Arizona Border Control Initiative announced in March. The effort will cost $4 million, said Wimberly, who also works as a border agent.

"It's the hottest time of the year," Wimberly said. "Immigrants cross. Smugglers have no regard, leaving them in the desert without food and water. The UAVs will help us find and rescue them."

About 12 Border Patrol and industry officials will operate and maintain the two UAVs. The agency wants to fly them eight hours per day, seven days a week, with one aircraft in flight while the other is prepped to relieve it, he said.

The UAVs will take off from Fort Huachuca. The aircraft will send the images to personnel monitoring the situation from the UAV's ground control station or an agency facility, Wimberly said.

UAVs resemble huge model airplanes and carry cameras and sensors to monitor people and vehicle movements. The military used the aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan because they can fly over enemy territory without endangering humans.

Border Patrol officials formed a work group last June to devise UAV requirements. The 12 members of the group decided the agency should buy an existing aircraft that can fly alone for 10 hours, he said.

Border Patrol officials released a request for information last July to query UAV manufacturers. The agency received responses for 31 types of aircraft in August, Wimberly said.

They whittled the batch to six and invited officials from manufacturing companies to Fort Huachuca to demonstrate their aircraft in October. Agency officials plan to release a solicitation to purchase UAVs early next year and hope to award the contract next spring, he said.

DHS officials asked for $10 million to test UAVs in their fiscal 2005 budget request. Asa Hutchinson, head of the department's Directorate for Border and Transportation Security, requested the appropriation Feb. 12 when he testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship.

Prior to the Arizona Border Control Initiative announcement, Bonner approved the use of UAVs to start monitoring the border this summer.

Border Patrol officials searched existing government contracts with UAVs that fly autonomously and complement the agents' 10- to 12-hour work shifts. The agency chose the Defense Department's Joint UAV Program, he said.

Under the contract, administered at the Fallon Naval Air Station, Nev., DHS officials will use the Hermes 450 UAV manufactured by Elbit Systems Ltd. in Haifa,

Israel. The Border Patrol leased two aircrafts for four months and will receive assistance from the company's EFW Inc. subsidiary based in Fort Worth, Texas, Wimberly said.

An Elbit EFW spokesman could not be reached for comment.

One UAV industry analyst thinks DHS officials took the right approach in procuring the aircraft. "The department chose a mature and proven UAV and put it in the hands of users," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International in Arlington, Va.


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