UPDATED: New Radars Placed Aboard Unmanned Aircraft on U.S. Borders

By Stew Magnuson
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been flying unmanned aerial vehicles on the U.S. border for six years now and the aircraft are in more demand than ever, said the chief of the agencies’ aviation office.

And they are not just for keeping tabs on illegal migrants and drug smugglers.

The seven Predator B and Reaper class medium altitude, long-endurance UAVs in the CBP fleet (see correction) have been used by the Drug Enforcement Agency for surveillance and interdictions in the Caribbean, the Forestry Service to detect fires and by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to monitor flood damage in the nation’s interior, said Michael Kostelnik, CBP assistant commissioner and head of the agency’s air and marine office.

Two new radars are being employed. The first is a SeaVue radar built by Raytheon, which has allowed CBP and the Coast Guard to fly joint missions in the Gulf of Mexico and in the waters around the Bahamas. It has been installed on the new maritime version of the Predator, called the Guardian.

CBP is also assisting the Army in testing its experimental Vader radar, which can detect slow moving objects in all weather. It can track multiple dismounted targets such as drug smugglers or illegal migrants.

“Something that can see through all weather and track people on the ground obviously would have a lot of charm for us,” Kostelnik said. “The system is working. It has already proven itself on immigration detection missions on the Southwest border.”

There were no requirements for an unmanned aerial vehicle on the border when CBP first began flying the Predator. It was a technology “push” initially, but that is rapidly becoming a technology “pull,” he said.

With the seven aircraft currently in the fleet, CBP can pull a UAV from border patrol duties, get an emergency authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration and fly anywhere in the United States within a day for disaster response missions — most of the time within four to five hours, he said.

The aircraft are stationed at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, Cape Canaveral, Fla., and in the north at Grand Forks, N.D. There are plans to house them at Fort Drum. N.Y., to cover the Northeast, and at a yet to be determined spot in the Northwest.

CBP will acquire three more of the flexible Dash-7 models over the next year. (see correction) There are plans to station one in a Central American country to expand coverage in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Kostelnik was asked how many aircraft he would need.

“There is no real answer to what the number is,” he said. One model showed that 24 or 25 would be sufficient to place a UAV anywhere over the United States within three hours, he said.

But when the governor of North Dakota sees the value in the UAVs for assessing flood damage, governors from other states are saying “what about me?” he said. DEA is asking for more UAVs, and border states such as Texas and Arizona are asking for expanded coverage.

“I am comfortable with where the fleet is today,” he said.

Reduced budgets, however, may result in fewer flight hours, he added.

Correction: The Predator B is a Reaper-class UAV, not separate models as the sentence suggests. CBP does not have any plans to acquire Dash-7 aircraft. The Dash-7 is not an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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