Wings Over the Border

While the feds continue to 'study' the idea, a private group launches unmanned spy planes to patrol the Mexican border.

The Border Patrol launched "Operation Pipeline" on Nov. 17, in an effort to crackdown on illegal crossings in Cochise County. At the time, agents were catching more than 300 illegal immigrants per day.

When the operation ended in December, that number had dropped to 23 per day. More than 3,000 illegal immigrants were caught during the month-long operation, as well as 4,835 pounds of marijuana and 145 seized vehicles. Then, during the two-week holiday period, agents nabbed another 10,000 pounds of pot worth more than $8 million.

The feds had added dozens of agents on horseback and all-terrain vehicles. But one tool they have been looking at since last spring is apparently still on hold: unmanned aerial vehicles.

Air patrols along the border are conducted sporadically by fixed-wing aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters. It's a costly operation with limited range, say UAV supporters, including Arizona's Rep. John Shadegg, Rep. Jim Kolbe, and Sen. John McCain. They argue that UAVs--erroneously called "drones"--can better watch over the border by flying hundreds of miles sporting video cameras, sensors and communications equipment.

After testing UAVs in south Texas during the late 1990s, Border Patrol officials decided against using them. But the top border security official in Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson, told Congress in March: "I think that we have to revisit some of this technology since Sept. 11 and see if it has greater application."

Since Sept. 11, advancements in the range, endurance and reliability of UAV technology for military reconnaissance have been made in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It really is a hot field in intel. It's a fascinating technology, and it is booming," says Tanja Linton, Fort Huachuca's UAV spokesperson. "We are training more and more UAV operators."

The border UAV issue made headlines in May 2003 when Homeland's head cop, Secretary Tom Ridge, told the House Select Committee on Homeland Security that UAVs could be patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of the year.

"We are very serious in looking at UAVs for both border applications, land and sea ... where you have wide open spaces, it's a lot easier for us to take a look at some of the technology that is presently employed by the Department of Defense," Ridge told the Committee.

That same month Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe, John Shadegg, Jeff Flake, J.D. Hayworth, Rick Renzi and Trent Franks penned a letter to Secretary Ridge asking for a speedy UAV border deployment and endorsed Fort Huachuca as the location for training.

Ridge was in the Tucson area in early December to tour UAV training facilities at Fort Huachuca, where some 300 UAV operators graduated this year and where the testing of several UAV contractors competing for a government deal has been taking place since October.

"We're kind of known throughout the defense department as the 'center of excellence' for UAVs," says Fort Huachuca's Linton. "All of the Army's UAV operators and maintainers are trained here."

When the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, part of the Homeland Security Department, was formed on March 1, 2003, it wrapped the Border Patrol, as well as agriculture, immigration and customs inspectors, into one unit. If UAVs are deployed as promised, it will be CBP manning the remote joysticks.

"As far as specifics on the UAV, I bet you, with the threat level being orange right now, there's probably not going to be a lot of details about national security being released, regardless of what Secretary Ridge was saying," says Tucson sector Border Patrol spokesperson Greg Maier.

"Under the pilot program, they are testing them for the CPB for enforcement and security of our borders," says CPB Washington D.C. spokesperson Gloria Chavez. "The last thing I heard was that it's still a pilot program, and they haven't made a decision on whether to use them permanently."

IN THE MEANTIME, THE Arizona "vigilante" group, American Border Patrol, has thrown themselves into the frontline battle by already completing testing of their UAV--called "Border Hawk"--with expectations of regular patrols of the border with three UAVs.

"We should have regular operational missions by Friday (Jan. 9)," says Glenn Spencer, president of the ABP.

Spencer, 65, cringes when his group gets branded as one of the knuckle-dragging, rifle-touting, vigilante militias that have sprung up along the border. APB maintains a "no contact" policy with the illegal aliens, preferring instead to shoot videos and let the feds do the apprehending, he says. In fact, ABP is more the tech nerd of border protection, embracing the high-tech efforts of its two full-time refugees from Silicon Valley. The result: Three UAVs that even the military is impressed with.

The group launched its first test flight April 27, which transmitted high-resolution images that were broadcast live over the Internet and on MSNBC. The Border Hawk performed its first full 22-mile test mission just before Christmas. Part of the testing was flown while Spencer entertained inquiries from observing U.S. Army officers--something ABP was happy with, even though it caused a nearly three-month delay in launching regular patrols.

"The Army called us and said, 'We're interested in looking at your airplane.' They sent engineers out and looked at it, and liked what they saw," says Spencer.

ABP's three UAVs are equipped with a pan-and-tilt camera and an Internet satellite hook-up to send "live" streaming video over the Internet while being controlled by global positioning device to pinpoint migrants--information that can then forward to the Border Patrol. When a ground sensor is tripped along the 350-mile Arizona-Mexico border, a drone is launched and flies to the tripped sensor to transmit images of the area.

"The camera operates independently with a radio-controlled joystick in our control van, and we installed a TiVO in the system so we can do an instant replay if we see something interesting." notes Spencer. "You can understand; it's pretty complex."

And expensive.

But the nonprofit ABP found a unique solution to funding such a project.

"We decided we really needed high-tech systems, but there was not enough money being generated by ABP to finance it, so we arranged for private individuals to invest in Border Tech, Inc.," explains Spencer.

The separate corporation puts a financial firewall between nonprofit ABP and the pricey development of the UAVs.

IF THE FEDS FINALLY do decide to use UAVs along the border, more likely than not, the CBP agents will be trained at Fort Huachuca. But one telling sign of the feds' UAV status is that training has not begun.

"We do training for a number of government agencies, and we do training for the Border Patrol as it is right now, but their program hasn't been established yet," says Fort Huachuca's Linton. "Right now, we haven't been given that mission by the Pentagon."

And despite Ridge's statement that UAVs might be in use soon, the government has taken no steps to even purchase any border UAVs.

So while the feds continue to "study" the issue, ABP is moving ahead. And though, like the Army, the Border Patrol has also taken an interest in their UAVs, Spencer doesn't see a collaboration any time soon.

"I kind of like the idea of being independent, so we're not really looking for a Border Patrol contract," Spencer says. "In fact, the investors don't see any immediate pay-off; they just think it's a good idea to get this thing done."

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