Border Patrol to expand UAV usage

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

By the end of this month, U.S. Border Patrol officials plan to monitor a larger area of the southwest border with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which has been in use since September 2005. They plan to add a second one this summer.

Chief David Aguilar said yesterday that officials will increase the UAV surveillance footprint from 150 miles to 300 miles in Arizona at the end of this month. And because the program has been a success, officials will start using a second UAV in Arizona by June, he said.

The technology has helped agents make more than 1,000 apprehensions and many drug seizures, he said. It’s also been valuable in helping improve officers’ safety because they can use UAVs in certain situations before they intervene, he said. UAVs also act as a deterrent because agency officials have notified people that some areas are monitored by air, he added.

The Border Patrol has been testing UAVs in some capacity since June 2004. Last August, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency awarded a one-year, $14.1 million contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Services to deliver, operate and maintain a Predator B UAV platform and sensor package, according to a December 2005 report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.

Aguilar, who briefed reporters yesterday about current border security initiatives, said the UAV, which can fly 18 to 24 hours consecutively at an altitude of 18,000 feet, has electro-optical/infrared imagers that can view a license plate and distinguish between humans and animals.

According to a 2005 Congressional Research Service report, electro-optical sensors or cameras “can identify an object the size of a milk carton from an altitude of 60,000” feet and provide real-time imagery to ground control operators who can pass that information on to Border Patrol agents.

Although the DHS IG called the Border Patrol’s use of UAVs a positive step, he said weather conditions can affect their performance, and they are also costly to maintain and operate.

The IG report also outlines Federal Aviation Administration concerns about the use of UAVs in the National Airspace System because they are not able to detect other aircraft, terrain or civil airspace users in their flight paths, and they cannot maneuver to avoid a collision.

Along with Aguilar, John Torres, acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Detention and Removal Operations, also briefed reporters yesterday about enforcement operations.

Among the initiatives, he said ICE has been using videoconferencing with officials from a foreign consulate who can interview detained individuals remotely to determine their identity. That program has been in place in Houston and Arizona since last fall with Honduran officials.

Before videoconferencing was available, he said, consulate officials would visit detainees every two weeks and then issue travel documents, a process that could take an additional three to four weeks. Currently, he said it takes only 10 days to issue documents following a videoconference interview.

That time could be reduced to one day. ICE officials are considering establishing an electronic travel document for detainees. Torres said that could entail using an electronic signature and fingerprint biometrics. He said eventually they would need to test it before implementing it, but he did not indicate a timeline.

In fiscal 2005, more than 217,000 illegal aliens were taken into custody. Of the 217,000, about 168,000 were returned to more than 100 countries.

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