Texas Gov. Rick Perry has gained national attention by demanding that President Barack Obama provide National Guard troops to protect the state's southern border. Now, he wants federal officials and the Federal Aviation Administration's administrator to approve his use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to protect the border from drug and human-smuggling rings originating from Mexico.

A UAV can provide better situational awareness to U.S. Customs and Border Control (CBC) agents tasked with safeguarding the border, said Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX). Earlier this year, Cuellar lobbied the speaker of the house for emergency funding to fight drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He said violence across the border has increased, including attacks at the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo across the Rio Grande in neighboring Mexico and the March double shootings of Americans in Ciudad Juarez.

"We are at a tipping point," Cuellar said about the violence. "Our border communities have braced themselves for a spillover of violence, and the burden is falling on local law enforcement at home."

Cuellar said his constituents are worried about how such violence may affect trade relations and tourism. Laredo is the largest inland port on the southern border, and trade between U.S. and Mexico is worth more than $1 billion annually.

"They have been facing the violence across the river," he said. "That is a concern, because we certainly don't want that to spill over and affect trade."

As a result, there is a need for wireless technology to survey areas and report smuggling, and UAVs fit the job, Cuellar said. Having eyes in the sky with surveillance payloads lets border-control agents quickly access information in near real time to aid in their decision-making, he said.

"The more information we can give to our personnel on the ground, the more effective they will be going after illegal activity," he said.

Using UAVs for border security is not new. In fact, six UAVs currently are used along the southern border as part of the country's SBInet program, said Steven Crowley, U.S. Customs and Border Control (CBC) spokesperson. Initiated in 2006, SBInet deploys a combination of infrastructure and technology — cameras, radars, sensors and towers — along 387 miles of border. The goal was to create a virtual fenceof wireless technology that would help border agents detect and visually monitor people as they attempted to cross the border illegally, Crowley said. Specifically, UAVs are used to fly over an area, gather video-surveillance intelligence and transmit it back to CBC agents.

Such UAVs carry tailored payloads that can provide multiple types of intelligence, such as video feeds or scientific measurements via radar. Data are transmitted in near real time to command and control, which then can deploy human resources to an area, Crowley said.

"The virtual fence includes sensor systems and UAVs that monitor and send data back in real time to command-and-control centers," he said.

Cuellar is a proponent of the virtual fence, because most of his constituents are against the build out of a brick-and-mortar structure and shiver at the $7.5-million-per-mile price tag. In comparison, one mile of technology costs about $1 million. He said citizens would rather have a virtual fence with sensors, camera and UAVs that can provide that information to CBC agents or law enforcement on the ground.

"I think taxpayers would appreciate using the most cost-effective way of protecting the border," he said.

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