WASHINGTON--A handful of new drones is expected to begin patrolling the nation's northern and southern borders within the next few years.
For the moment, we're not talking swarms, here. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials, backed by the Bush administration and some in Congress, are nevertheless hoping to steadily increase the presence of unmanned aerial vehicles aloft in an effort to nab illegal immigrants and drug traffickers more effectively, said Michael Kostelnik, a retired U.S. Air Force official who now serves as assistant commissioner of the CBP's air and marine unit.
For the past few years, CBP agents have already been launching a pair of Predator B unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) from the Arizona desert to work along the southwestern border with Mexico.
The agency plans to take on two more aircraft this fall, with the idea that they'll undergo further testing and start flying surveillance missions next year, Kostelnik said in a speech at the annual symposium here of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. In September, CBP plans to inaugurate one of the flying machines at an operations center in Grand Forks, N.D., and in November, it plans to accept a second UAV as part of its southwestern fleet.
There's also funding available for the addition of two more Predator B vehicles next year, Kostelnik said. CBP hopes to outfit one of them with sensors specially designed for policing the seas and station it along the Gulf of Mexico coast, which he suggested has "a lot going on" from an illegal-immigration and drug-trafficking perspective.
For what are probably obvious reasons, the idea of sharing the domestic airspace with vehicles lacking human eyeballs has caused a stir among many pilots. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, citing safety worries, has repeatedly called on Congress to urge federal regulators to step up their enforcement of potentially unregulated uses of the aircraft in the national airspace.
Kostelnik attempted to downplay those concerns on Wednesday by boasting about the perceived benefits derived from the policing tactic. He noted that CBP has received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate only in certain areas along the border.
He also said the Predator is "probably one of the most experienced and safest of all vehicles we fly" and noted that most missions occur at night and in relatively remote areas. ("We're not flying downtown New York; we're not flying across Dallas, Texas," he said.) While they're up there, CBP's planes could likely be used to conduct other federal agencies' missions, too, such as collecting weather data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he added.
"You have to understand what these things are doing," Kostelnik told the gathering of UAV industry and government representatives. "I'm not trying to make a buck, I'm trying to protect you and your families."