Texas Gov. Rick Perry 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 in Mexico.

A UAV can provide better situational awareness to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents tasked with safeguarding the border from smugglers, said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district contains 220 miles of the border, including Laredo, which sits across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He also is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism and recently lobbied the speaker of the house for emergency funding to fight drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, warning it may spill over into U.S. soil, affect trade relations between the two nations and cost lives.

"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 has fallen on local law enforcement."

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 greater need for wireless technology to survey areas and report smuggling, and UAVs fit the job, Cuellar said. UAVs carry surveillance payloads and act like eyes in the sky for border-control agents, who then use video evidence for better situational awareness, he said.

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

Using UAVs for border security is not a new concept. In fact, six UAVs currently are used along the southern border as part of the SBInet program, said Steven Crowley, CBP spokesperson. Initiated in 2006 as part of the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative, SBInet deploys a combination of infrastructure and technology — cameras, radars, sensors and towers — along 387 miles of border. UAVs with tailored payloads are used to fly over an area, gather video-surveillance intelligence and transmit it back to CBP agents. Such wireless systems make up the virtual fence and help border agents detect and visually monitor people as they attempt to cross the border illegally, 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 added.

The virtual fence is well-liked in Cuellar's district. Right now, there is a lot of controversy over the build out of a brick-and-mortar structure, and constituents shutter at the $7.5-million-per-mile price tag. In comparison, one mile of technology costs about $1 million. As a result, residents prefer a fence of sensors, camera and UAVs that can provide information to CBP agents or law enforcement on the ground.

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

However, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — citing cost overruns and missed deadlines — announced in March that work on SBInet would be suspended pending a broad reassessment of the program. At the same time, she said that $50 million in economic-stimulus funding originally targeted for SBInet would be diverted to other "tested, commercially available security technology."

Eyes in the sky

Nevertheless, UAVs will improve border security because drone technology is an important part of three-dimensional attack on transnational crime — i.e., the movement of people, guns, money and drugs across borders — that currently fuels a multibillion dollar industry, said Dr. James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank. Illegal border crossings associated with immigration are part of the problem, but the larger concerns are the smuggling corridors and criminal element, Carafano said.

"That's the real threat," he said.

Carafano said the border is like a balloon, where smuggling corridors shift to areas without security.

"You push it in one area and it pops out the other," he said. "When a smuggling route gets very hot, extra security is added. Eventually what happens is that the security takes hold and then smugglers move to some other place."

In addition, smugglers now are using ultra-light aircraft that can carry payloads of about 100 pounds to traffic goods across the border. They also dig tunnels and make homemade submarines to avoid detection from U.S. law enforcement, Carafano said. As a result, border security must be dynamic and resources constantly shifted to detect smuggling and intercept activities, he said.

Carafano said UAVs are a great asset to cover a large territory, because they can carry different sensor payloads and can be tailored for the mission. They also are easy to operate and maintain, which is important for local law enforcement because they don't have a lot of resources or experience, he said. In addition, they provide surveillance footage while slipping past smugglers' spies along the border who watch for U.S. surveillance aircraft.

"Depending on whether you are looking for a tunnel under the earth, looking for somebody walking on land or trying to identify a radio signal … you can tailor UAV sensor packages to fit the threat," Carafano said.

But it's not easy getting a UAV on the border, Cuellar said. Getting the funds for the Texas drones took time. There also were logistical concerns. The Department of Homeland Security must coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure the drones don't interfere with private and commercial aircraft. UAVs now are stuck flying in military airspace, into which non-military aircraft are prohibited from entering due to security concerns. That includes those operated by public-safety agencies.

Right now, Texas still awaits an agreement between the FAA and the CBP so that they will be approved to fly UAVs without restriction, Cuellar said. He expects good results from a meeting he had last month with FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who promised approval by late August.

"I think UAVs have been tested by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have given us a great advantage over our enemies," Cuellar said. "It's something that's tested, and it's a tool that I think will work."

Smaller, cheaper and more powerful

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Predator UAV currently is used on the border. Predators are configured with a satellite-data-link system and can sit above a target for 40 hours. It's smaller than a private jet, and its payload includes two, color video cameras, an infrared camera that offers night-vision capability and synthetic-aperture radar that provides higher-resolution video, according to the company. The UAV currently flies in Class A airspace under a special authorization from the FAA. But it may be usurped by a next-generation of UAVs, with the future unveiling of prototypes that can hover above targets for up to five years, said Edward Herlick, an aviation technology analyst who's viewed beta-test flights.

"There's a new class in development of UAVs that will let users persist over a spot after a civilian disaster," he said. "So instead of 40 hours, you get days, months, even years of use."

The next-generation of UAVs is so new that even industry has yet to agree on its name and classifications, but prototype designs have been known as solar-powered, persistent UAVs. Herlick said that during test flights, the prototype has sat above the jet stream at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet for a month. In the future, a year is "an easy goal," he added.

Herlick said that there are several commercial and public-safety applications for the persistent UAVs. Currently, prototypes can provide the services of satellites better because they are not limited by orbital mechanics and rocket-launch costs. For public safety, if first-responder agencies could predict a disaster, such as a hurricane, the UAV could be deployed before it hits in order to collect and transmit high-resolution photos to personnel inside a mobile command center.

Persistent UAVs also can act as communications beacons, meaning that they are able to bounce signals so mobile and portable radio systems can communicate on the ground, Herlick said.

"Radio relay is the government's priority … for signals to bounce between the UAV to the ground," he said. "So if your communications systems are taken down, you can bounce them off the UAV."

Herlick said that persistent UAVs may cost one-tenth of a satellite for a similar capability. As a result, he sees a strong commercial use for cellular and data networks; for example, persistent UAVs could be placed in an urban area to reduce the number of tower sites that have to be operated and maintained by a carrier, without sacrificing coverage.

However, Herlick doesn't see a strong market potential for border-control usage because of FAA airspace restrictions. UAVs aren't allowed to fly in commercial airspace and, instead, are stuck flying in military airspace — but only when they don't interfere with military drills or missions. Such a strict limitation greatly limits their usability, he said.

"Military bases along the border are heavily used during the day, so the Predators can only fly at night," he said.

To solve the issue, the FAA needs to work with the CBP to designate airspace to UAVs, Herlick said. Right now, "it's pure bureaucracy, when it should be about integrating UAVs into commercial airspace," he said.

Even with the FAA hurdles, the marketplace continues to produce next-generation UAVs that are faster, smaller and easier to deploy. For example, Insitu's Scan-Eagle — developed in partnership with Boeing — is a low-altitude, long-endurance, (LALE) aircraft that flies at altitudes of about 3,000 feet. It features a pneumatic-catapult launch system and a GPS-enabled retrieval system that allows users to literally snatch the UAV out of the air. These features together provide runway-independence. In other words, the ScanEagle can be launched and captured on small ships, on unimproved terrain and in remote regions, said Paul McDuffee, Insitu's vice president of commercial business development.

The UAV also has an inertially stabilized camera that can track fixed and moving objects for extended periods using an integrated GPS. It weighs less than 55 pounds, McDuffee said. The system is capable of being airborne for 24 hours or more, without refueling, and can be deployed anywhere by only two people

"This is a vehicle that will go out and fly a prescribed flight path that is uploaded to the aircraft and conduct that path without any intervention from a pilot," he added. "It's portable, it's mobile and it can be redeployed relatively quickly over fairly significant distances and operate where it's most needed."

It's ideal for use along the border, McDuffee said. The ScanEagle platform can be used for tactical surveillance and can survey between 50 and 100 miles up and down the border at low altitudes.

McDuffee said the Department of Defense is its core customer because FAA airspace restrictions limit use of the Scan Eagle by commercial and public-safety entities, as such entities would need to acquire FAA approval for special use under a special certificate of operations. However, he hopes the state of Texas will be the first public-safety deployment and pitched ScanEagle to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst last month. He believes the UAV could be used along the border as a force multiplier and be deployed along isolated corridors where manpower isn't available at all.

The result, McDuffee said, would be greater security at less cost. The system's cost is on based on a sliding scale and is tailored to specific missions. However, a basic system consisting of ground-support equipment, aircraft and spare parts can run in the low six-figure range — roughly one-thirteenth of the cost of a Predator, he said.

The ability to fly at lower altitudes gives the company a competitive advantage when it comes to FAA approval, McDuffee said.

"If the FAA opens airspace to unmanned aircraft, they are going to do it in an incremental basis — starting small and moving to the larger platforms," he said. "These systems will be the ones given access to the airspace first, over and above the larger platforms, particularly for the low-altitude, long-endurance surveillance."

McDuffee said that he believes the FAA will be forced to share airspace with UAVs for border-control work and other public-safety applications.

"We are reasonably confident that a new day is dawning and there will be more liberal opportunities to deploy these systems," he said.

The next generation

Insitu offers the Integrator, a small UAV that captures high-resolution imagery both day and night. Its small operational footprint is the same as ScanEagle, and it uses similar GPS-enabled retrieval and launch systems, which enable runway-independence. However, it has additional capacity to accommodate a mix of larger payloads for longer periods.

  • Flexible, modular design
  • Expanded payload capacity enables multiple missions
  • Small operation footprint at sea or ashore
  • Array of payloads: high-quality electro-optical, infrared, radar, communications relay and customer-specified

Texas-sized plans

The Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan 2010-2015 communicates the high-level goals, strategic objectives and priority actions for advancing the state's homeland security strategy. Section 1.2.1 states as follows:

Expand and enhance the state's integrated, multi-agency counter-crime and counterterrorism investigative capabilities that address:

  • Suspicious activities.
  • Known or suspected terrorist organizations, cells, actors, and other related threats.
  • Groups and networks providing direct material support to terrorists.
  • Criminal enterprises indirectly supporting or enabling terrorists.
  • Criminal enterprises engaged in drug trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling, weapon smuggling, extortion, homicide, money laundering, prostitution, and other index crimes.

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