Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard will begin flying a maritime version of the MQ-9 Predator B Guardian unmanned aircraft vehicle out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Fla., beginning in January, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Kostelnik, assistant commissioner of the agency’s air and marine division, told National Defense.
“This will be the first operational maritime variant of the Predator series,” he said.
CBP and the Coast Guard accepted the aircraft at a ceremony in Palmdale, Calif. Operational tests will be carried out through January and February with the remotely piloted aircraft beginning shortly afterwards to patrol regions of the Caribbean that are known for drug smuggling, he said.
CBP formed a joint program with the Coast Guard in March 2008 to investigate the possibility of flying a maritime version of the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper. It has kept the Predator name because it doesn’t want to confuse it with the Air Force’s weaponized version of the aircraft. The homeland security version does not carry arms, said Kimberly Kasitz, spokeswoman for the aircraft’s manufacturer, General Atomics.
CBP currently has five remotely piloted aircraft carrying out surveillance on the southern and northern U.S. borders.
Along with patrolling the border, the UAVs have been used in humanitarian missions as well, such as the Red River floods last year in North Dakota.
“Clearly it would support a lot of humanitarian missions that the Coast Guard and we are responsible for,” he said.
The program will receive a second Predator early in 2010 that will be based out of Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. There are long-term plans to acquire a third that would fly out of a host nation, possibly in Central America, to patrol the Western Pacific region, he said.
“There are nations in Central America that are happy to host these kinds of aircraft,” Kostelnik said.
The maritime versions have been adapted for the harsher ocean weather, and have been outfitted with new sensors, which include forward looking infrared and a maritime radar. Both can peer through clouds and fog. It also has Coast Guard automatic identification system receivers, which the service uses to track large boats.
Finding qualified pilots is still the biggest impediment, he added. CBP is using a mix of its own personnel and contractors to fly its Predators. It has 16 pilots on duty and has hired another 24, who are still in training. Learning how to launch and recover UAVs is the hardest part of operating them, he noted.
Coast Guard personnel have also joined the units which are based in Riverside, Calif.