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Border agency looks to expand drone fleet

U.S. Customs and Border Protection last month received its latest unmanned aircraft, but it’s a new sole-source contract that could approach a half-billion dollars that offers the latest insight into the agency’s vision for its controversial eyes-in-the-sky drone program.

The border agency has locked in a five-year deal with a San Diego-area aeronautical company estimated to be worth as much as $443 million, according to a document posted Nov. 1 on the federal government contracting opportunities website. An estimated $237 million of that would buy up to 14 drones and related equipment. Whether Customs and Border Protection will actually get the money to spend is another question.

Congress hasn’t appropriated funding beyond the 10th drone the agency just received, which will fly from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the agency hasn’t asked for any more for the 2013 fiscal year.

The Homeland Security inspector general’s office in a June audit recommended that Customs and Border Protection stop buying the drones until officials figure out a budget plan for the program and how to get the most use out of the unmanned aircraft, which are frequently grounded by inclement weather.

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At U.S. border, drones generate lots of buzz, few results

TUCSON, Ariz. – An aerial drone, zooming somewhere out of sight high above the cooling scrubland, first spotted the group of nearly two dozen migrants.

Snaking through the Sonoran Desert on a warm, moonless night last month, the would-be immigrants traversed the rugged foothills southwest of Tucson, a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

It had been a relatively quiet shift in that area for U.S. Border Patrol agents, who paused to chat in their passing green-and-white SUVs as dusk crept closer. But just after 10 p.m. agents perked up, their radios crackling with activity.

A fixed-wing Cessna took over from the Predator B unmanned plane and from overhead the pilot helped direct agents toward the migrants, who wove around ocotillo and brush.

 

A helicopter swooped in, its spotlight beaming over the hillside and rotors slicing the desert solitude as agents dropped down a ridge to chase the scattering group.

All told, a dozen men and women in olive uniforms converged. They rounded up eight of the migrants, walked them toward their gathered trucks and lined them up in a shallow drainage ditch along a washboard dirt road. A few of the migrants asked about the “camera in the sky” that had caught them.

A pilotless aircraft may have awed the failed migrants, but such success stories about U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s quarter-billion-dollar drone program come in short supply, according to a Homeland Security Department inspector general’s report released Monday.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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Border agency seeks more unmanned aircraft use in Calif.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are looking to expand the use of remotely piloted surveillance aircraft to cover nearly all of California, allowing the unmanned vehicles to fly over the last major section of the Southwest border.

The agency's Office of Air and Marine expects the Federal Aviation Administration this year to permit it to extend its unmanned aircraft operations into airspace just east of the San Diego metropolitan area, border agency spokeswoman Gina Gray said.

Hailed by some, including U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., for their cutting-edge technology, the unmanned aircraft’s expense – and efficacy – has been criticized by others.

At a cost of $18.5 million each to operate – including radar and sensor systems, maintenance, a ground control station, and the aircraft itself – the unmanned aircraft have been credited with helping to seize 46,600 pounds of illicit drugs and catching a relatively small number of people, 7,500, engaged in illegal activity along the border since late 2005.

 

Gray said it would be unfair to measure the program's success by drug interdiction or border-crosser apprehensions alone, as the unmanned aircraft aren’t used solely for border security. The aircraft also assist in emergency and disaster response efforts.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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