United States deployed the 1st Aero Squadron of the US army in 1916 into Mexico to provide reconnaissance for Gen. John J. Pershing‘s cavalry force, and though they experienced operational and technical difficulties, extensive research was carried out on how best to circumvent these problems and a hundred years later a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) survey the same landscape.
The UAVs ate lightweight, nimble, and can be controlled via a remote control and, when held by responsible hands, can effectively assist the CBP in patrolling and surveying the boundaries.
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According to CBP’s figures, over the past two fiscal years, their drones have helped capture less than 3 percent of the drug seized by agents. The numbers the CBP gatheres showed that drug seizures “are not an appropriate measure but these drones detect illegal cross-border activity . . . on a daily basis.”
However, these UAVs are also exposing agents of the CBP to unimaginable risks and dangers.
Lother Eckardt is the director of the Southeast Region of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations and he agreed with this assertion, saying, “Several weeks ago an Air and Marine helicopter carrying a pilot and a border patrol agent had a near miss of a small UAS. We almost lost the helicopter, the pilot, and the border agent, okay? That’s what keeps me up at night.”
On April 29, the Department of Homeland Security and the US Customs and Border Protection hosted a Homeland Security day in Silicon Valley. CBP agents, investors, startups, and stakeholders met to interact and discuss unique opportunities in hopes of ensuring safety of the traveling public and CBP agents.
The objective of the program was to accelerate the transition of state-of-the-art technology into use by the DHS and other users in the Homeland Security Enterprise.
CBP commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske recently announced a new version and strategy for the agency charged with border security and trade and travel facilitation as the CBP’s vision and strategy 2020 advances collaboration, innovation, and integration, and hopefully, these strategic themes will drive CBP forward onto the year 2020.
Eckardt was one of the several CBP commissioners who addressed the crowd at the event.
CBP is investing into using technology to advance its objectives and one of the most effective ways is to use unmanned aerial vehicles or the drones. The interest in drones, particularly from hobbyists and commercial users, has grown over the past few years and it is estimated that over a million drones were sold during the holiday season across stores in the US. Most of the drones sold were small, usually smaller than 4 ft in length. It can be gotten for cheap, even as low as $44.
These personal drones are restricted by FAA to not fly more than 400 feet in the air, although most of these aircraft are capable of flying higher than that. This might work for the CBP in carrying out their duties but it also portends danger for the agency.
CBP has in its fleet ten Predator B drones to help close the gaps through which smugglers move people and drugs across the border. These drones are just like the full-sized Predator drone the Air Force uses in the Middle East but these drones are not cheap and the CBP’s $600 million drone program has come under scrutiny in a few quarters as they are huge, expensive, and require hours of extensive training before they can be flown. However, the small UAV can be bought and flown for a fraction of the cost.
Ronald Vitiella, acting chief of the US Border Patrol, said, “What we’re attempting to do is settle on a list of requirements for the small UAS. Some things that we’ve witnessed the military use on the battlefield that we think have application and situational awareness for agents.”
Drug smugglers have on several occasions attempted to use drones to smuggle drugs across the border. While there are no documented evidence of any successful attempt, it is worrisome enough as it is and measures to counter this are being effected by the CBP.
“You have to be able to identify drones, detect them, and then have an operational response for interdiction,” Vitiello said.
At the program jointly organized by CBP and DHS, officials from the CBP made frantic calls to the technology startups and enthusiasts to help “create a system that can help its pilots detect drones whenever they take to the sky.”
Drones are too small to carry transponders or beacons that would alert pilots to their location, and since the CBP helicopters operate at 500 feet, it is very possible that drones portend danger to the CBP helicopters.
“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,” said Eckardt. “Nobody can see these things. It’s not a matter if. It’s a matter of when they’re going to collide. I’d hate to be the one to lose somebody.”