Border Protection Agency Outlines New Plans for Unmanned Aircraft
Reported by Stew Magnuson
Customs and Border Protection will expand its unmanned aerial vehicles’ areas of operations to the northern border and the Caribbean and will set up its own command and control center.
Douglas Koupash, acting program manager for unmanned aerial systems and the executive director of mission support at CBP, said the agency’s new air strategic plan calls for three aircraft to operate along the southwest border, and one in the north stretching about 1,200 miles west of Detroit.
CBP currently has two operating on the southern border. The agency was scheduled to take delivery of one new Predator B aircraft in November and a second in January. Wildfires near the manufacturers’ plant near San Diego may push the schedule back, he said.
The plan calls for 18 aircraft, although that might be adjusted downwards if a lower number is deemed to be sufficient, he said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference.
There will be operational tests in May next year carried out with the Coast Guard to determine the UAVs’ utility in the Caribbean, he said. The Predator will fly from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. The Navy and Air Force will also participate in the project. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is interested in using the aircraft to keep tabs on tropical storms, he said.
“This could end up to be quite a diverse program office,” Koupash said.
In the north, CBP will eventually expand its area of operations east from Detroit to monitor the Great Lakes. Unlike the first five UAVs, the contract calls for the sixth Predator to be built for the maritime environment, he said.
There are currently no plans to expand the types of UAVs used along the borders, he added.
“Our experience with the Predator B has been very, very good,” he said. The crash of the agency’s first UAV in April 2006 in Arizona was due to pilot error. Smaller UAVs are not being considered at this time because they would fly below 18,000 feet and make it more difficult to get Federal Aviation Administration approval, he said.
Larger UAVs, such as the Global Hawk, which fliy higher and provide a broader area of surveillance, would be useful but are “a bit expensive for our tastes now,” he said.
CBP is also planning to build its own command-and-control headquarters at its air and marine operations center in Riverside, Calif. It currently flies from the Army’s Fort Huachuca, Ariz., base. General Atomics provides operators now, but CBP is training its first class of dedicated pilots, he said.
CBP also wants the ability to quickly pack up a Predator on a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and transport it to an area suffering from a natural disaster. It completed one operational test in September. NASA used a Predator B drone with an infrared sensor in a similar capacity when it assisted California authorities during the fires in October.