Drones’ Aim : Smugglers

Drones aim: smugglers

By Leslie Berestein
The San Diego Union Tribune, December 4, 2009

The federal government is preparing to use unmanned aircraft capable of patrolling sea routes in its hunt for smugglers.

Next week, the U.S. Customs and Border Protections office of air and marine operations will unveil its first maritime version of the Predator B unmanned surveillance drone. The agency already uses several of the aircraft to patrol the southern and northern land borders, with operations based in Arizona and North Dakota.

This is the first unmanned aircraft that will be used to patrol at sea, said Juan Muoz-Torres, a spokesman for the agency in Washington, D.C. Unlike the aircraft used to patrol over land, which rely on visual technology, this version is equipped with radar technology, he said.

'This one has the capacity of detecting vessels in the water,' Muoz-Torres said. 'The sensors on board the aircraft are different.'

He said the plan is to begin testing the aircraft in the eastern Caribbean, basing it out of Florida. It is expected to be operational next year. The agency is set to receive a second sea-equipped drone by early February, to be deployed in the Gulf of Mexico out of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Depending on the need, the second aircraft could be used to enhance manned agency patrols in the Pacific, which already operate in the San Diego area, said Michael Kostelnik, assistant commissioner of air and marine operations for Customs and Border Protection. The agency may eventually buy additional unmanned aircraft to patrol sea routes in the West.

'Were only buying two this year, but well see where the budgets go,' Kostelnik said. 'There will be unmanned aircraft in that area, though probably not this year.'

The Predators are manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in Poway, which also makes the Sky Warrior. Both types of drone are used by the U.S. military.

The Predators used by Customs and Border Protection are controlled remotely by a two-person team on the ground, said Kimberly Casitz, a spokeswoman for the company.

'Its like a cockpit,' she said. 'Someone is flying the aircraft; the other one is handling all the sensors, cameras and radar.'

Any intelligence gathered is transmitted from the aircraft to law enforcement, Casitz said.

While its main purpose is to counter drug smuggling, the unmanned aircraft also will transmit data on human smuggling by sea, which has been on the rise. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended 22 illegal immigrants yesterday on a boat off La Jolla.