Border agencies test hand-launched drones

CBP and the Border Patrol plan tests of three varieties of small drone aircraft along U.S. borders in the coming weeks, with an eye toward a larger acquisition of the portable vehicles.

AeroVironment's Puma UAS is being tested by the Border Patrol in late 2017 and early 2018.

AeroVironment's Puma is one of several small UAS being tested by the Border Patrol in late 2017 and early 2018. (Image: AeroVironment)

Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol are testing three small, hand-launched drone systems in selected sectors along the southern and northern borders over the next few months to see if the diminutive aircraft are worth a larger investment and wider deployment.

Border Patrol agents will test versions of small unmanned aircraft systems beginning this month in operational sectors in Tucson, Ariz., the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and in the Swanton sector in Vermont. CBP will look at the systems' reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, tracking and acquisition capabilities in difficult terrain, or areas deemed too high-risk for manned aircraft or border security ground personnel.

"These aircraft will enable Border Patrol agents to surveil remote areas not easily accessible by other means, which is critical to our ability to secure the border," said Border Patrol acting Chief Carla Provost in the Sept. 14 statement. "They will also be invaluable for humanitarian missions, aiding in locating individuals in need of medical assistance along inhospitable areas of the border."

The tests will run through January, according to the agency, while it examines the systems' surveillance and operational capabilities in the extremes of heat and cold in the test sectors.

The tests are CBP's first for the very small type of unmanned aerial systems, according to an agency spokesman.

"The only drone aircraft being used operationally by CBP are the much larger UAVs flown by Air and Marine Operations," said the spokesman in an email to FCW on Sept. 15. "There are no sUAS drones being flown by CBP, outside the very limited scale of this operational test being conducted by the U.S. Border Patrol."

Small is the operative word, since the aircraft being tested all have wingspans under 10 feet and weigh less than 15 lbs. Two of the aircraft will fit into the back of an SUV, while the smallest, weighing under a pound, can be carried in a backpack and launched with one hand.

The agency is testing AeroVironment's Raven and Puma UAS systems, as well as PSI Tactical's InstantEye quadcopter. At 14 pounds in weight with a 9.5 foot wingspan, the Puma is the largest of the three. The Raven has a 4.5 foot wingspan and weighs about four pounds, while PSI Tactical's InstantEye quadcopter weighs 0.7 pounds.

All three vehicles can carry regular and infrared cameras for surveillance and are remotely controlled by an operator from the ground. They have widely varying flight times and ranges and are used by the Department of Defense in surveillance and force protection operations.

The agency's existing large drone fleet consists of MQ-9 Predator Bs with 66-foot wing spans that require runways to operate and time to get from their homes to target areas.

CBP will rotate the different small systems through each test sector through January, measuring both hot and cold weather capabilities. The agency said it expects a final review of the systems in late spring 2018.

That review should provide information necessary for future investment decisions and expansion of the program to other Border Patrol sectors.

If a given technology successfully completes the trial, CBP could get "additional inventory" of the system through the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, in the same process the agency used to acquire its fleet of Tactical Aerostats from the U.S. military, said the spokesman.

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