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Unmanned Aircraft Gather Intel In Texas

The Predator drones provide a tool to law enforcement for drug-enforcement and smuggling operations.

May 27, 2010  |  by - Also by this author


U.S. Customs and Border Protection will begin using drone surveillance aircraft similar to these to support drug and human smuggling enforcement along the Texas/Mexico border.

Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved a Texas congressman's request to allow border-security agents to use Predator drone aircraft in the war on illegal smuggling.

The announcement is worth a closer look, because the unmanned drones are loaded with surveillance technology and give the U.S. Customs and Border Protection an intel-gathering tool on missions aimed at drug traffickers and smugglers. The aircraft support law enforcement, as well as homeland security missions.

Beginning June 1 (Tuesday), the border protection agency will use Predator drones and eventually Guardian drones, an agency spokeswoman told POLICE Magazine.

In granting a request from Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, the FAA has permitted operation of the drones on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River from the Arizona border to El Paso. Cuellar is now asking for drones from El Paso to Corpus Christi to cover Texas' entire border with Mexico. Texas shares 1,254 miles of the 1,951-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico.

The CBP has been deploying the drones in southwest Arizona under a program known as the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The agency deploys three MQ-9 Predator B craft from Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and has announced a plan to use the drones along the entire border by 2015.

These aircraft, which are produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, are flown remotely by a pair of pilots at ground control stations essentially using a high-tech flight simulator.

The aircraft has a 66-foot wingspan and is powered by a turboprop engine at the rear. Fuel capacity supports 20 hours of flying time. A Predator drone cruises at 50,000 feet at an airspeed of up to 240 knots (1 knot=1.15mph).

Here's a sampling of the aircraft's high-tech surveillance gear:

  • Electro-optical and infrared (IR) sensors expand range and vision and low ambient light levels.
  • Communication data links enable remote operators to uplink control commands and downlink payload imagery and telemetry data.
  • The C-band line-of-sight (LOS) data link allows direct control as far as 150 nautical miles, and aircraft control can be passed to another ground station.
  • Alternatively, a Ku-band beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) satellite communication (SATCOM) data link enables Predator series aircraft to be controlled from anywhere in the world. For example, U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are routinely operated worldwide from a USAF base near Las Vegas.
  • The next generation of the Advanced Cockpit used by ground operators will be equipped with 3-D maps, touch-screen technology, ergonomic design, and wrap-around synthetic vision.
  • Each drone includes a Remote Video Terminal (RVT) that can stream real-time imagery directly from the aircraft to personnel in the field.

For more information, visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's UAS program website.

Tags: Surveillance, U.S.-Mexico Border, Drug Enforcement, Unmanned Aircraft


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