Drones have been an intriguing technology for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as they are easy to use. They can be controlled with a smartphone and have the potential to broadly expand the aerial surveillance capabilities of CBP at a relatively low cost. However, there’s a downside—they are putting the lives of CBP agents in danger.
“Several weeks ago, an Air and Marine helicopter working in the Rio Grande Valley carrying a pilot and a border patrol agent had a near miss of a small UAS,” director of Southwest Region of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations, Lothar Eckardt, said. “We almost lost the helicopter, the pilot, and the border patrol agent, okay? That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Silicon Valley Initiation Program
Eckardt, one of several CBP agents, speaks to crowds of entrepreneurs in Menlo Park, California. This is a part of the Department of Homeland Security’s new Silicon Valley Innovation Program, an initiative that aims to work with startups and leverage their cutting-edge technology.
DHS in December held its first startup day. It focused mainly on Internet of Things technology; but on April 29, the department shifted its focus on CBP and the many issues it aims to find solutions to.
Drones are one of the devices CBP is most interested in. The flying robots have grown popular over the past couple of years, partly due to increasingly affordable pricing—the best-selling drone on Amazon costs just $44. These aircraft come in different shapes and sizes, and no matter what their configuration is, they all are capable of zooming through the sky.
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Although drone operators are only allowed to fly their gizmos up to 400 ft in the air, many of the devices can fly much higher than that. For instance, the DJI F550 can reach heights of almost three times that limit. This fact is both a good thing and a bad thing, according to CBP.
According to several DHS and CBP officials, drones are “a way to force multiply” CBP’s aerial fleet in such a way that it doesn’t cost taxpayers much money, either in fuel or equipment costs. CBP has several full-size Predator drones just like the ones the Air Force uses in the Middle East. These drones are, however, seen as huge, expensive gadgets that require extensive training to control. Hand-launched drones, also known as small UAS, on the other hand, are easier and cheaper to fly, presenting CBP with many possibilities.
“What we’re attempting to do is settle on a list of requirements for the [small] UAS,” said Ronald Vitiello, acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. “Some things that we’ve witnessed the military use on the battlefield that we think have application to do better information and situational awareness for agents.”
CBP, apart from figuring out how it can use drones, is also looking in Silicon Valley for countermeasures for this technology. There have been instances where people have tried using drones to smuggle drugs across the border, according to Vitiello. “You have to be able to identify [drones], detect them, and then have an operational response for interdiction,” he said.
CBP says it wants a system that will be able to help its pilots detect drones whenever they take flight.
“What I would like to see Silicon Valley helping us with is how do I separate the small UAS from manned aircraft so we don’t collide in the airspace?” Eckardt said. He also noted that CBP helicopters operate mainly at 500 ft and below, while drones are too small to carry any transponders or beacons to be detected.
“Nobody can see these things. It’s not a matter if. It’s a matter of when they’re going to collide,” Eckardt said. “I’d hate to be the one to lose somebody.”