U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is growing its fleet of unmanned aircraft to secure borders and respond to humanitarian emergencies. Advanced communications and surveillance technologies, along with advantages of remote piloting, provide new opportunities to monitor vast landscapes and support efforts on the ground, from capturing drug smugglers to analyzing flood damage.< p>In late December, the CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) received its ninth unmanned aircraft and had another one on order for delivery in December. OAM's fleet consists of Predator aircraft and their maritime variant, the Guardian. The two recent orders are for the new "Dash 7" configuration that can be equipped with either land or maritime radar systems. They are used primarily to patrol the nation's southwestern border and monitor coasts from the Gulf to the Atlantic.
The unmanned aircraft are part of a trend at CBP toward using unarmed military equipment for homeland security, said OAM Assistant Commissioner Michael C. Kostelnik (Major General, USAF, retired). "We operate a very high-tech, very capable force with these military-spec type systems — the Predators and the Guardians in particular. We're working these missions to help our people — our agents and officers on the ground — to secure the border daily with those missions," Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said. The fact that the aircraft are being flown daily for border security makes them available for emergency response and other national crises, he said.
The new aircraft, based at the CBP's Corpus Christi, Texas, station, will serve to strengthen the fleet and to provide backup when a unit is grounded for maintenance. The majority of the Predator series aircraft are located along the southwest border and southeast coastal areas, according to OAM fact sheets. Two of the craft are based in North Dakota.
The Predator class of aircraft is especially well suited to flying in the national air space because these remotely-piloted craft are hand-flown by FAA-certified pilots, Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said.
This system is preferable to others in which the aircraft is flown by analysts' computer keystrokes, he said; the hand-flown system enhances public safety. Furthermore, the Predator system has advanced technology to enhance the pilot's performance.
"I really think about these not as drones or remotely flown, but basically you bring the pilot virtually into the mission area — virtually. You give him all the capabilities and a lot more help and information to allow him to make decisions near real time in the mission area," Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said.
He acknowledged certain challenges for the pilot: "He gets no tactile feedback from what actually is happening. He's looking at the world around him through flat displays, not in three dimensions as you would if you were sitting there." The pilot's decisions unfold after a 1-second delay as signals move through the satellite system, he said.
However, the Predator system provides resources that work to the advantage of the pilot.
"He's sitting in a comfortable environment. He has an assistant sitting next to him looking at the sensors. He has unprecedented situational awareness," Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said. The system's equipment gives the pilot not only the view from the aircraft but also views from electrical optical cameras, infrared cameras, and radar systems. "He has a unique capability to see the world around him," he said.
One of the most powerful technologies in the Predator portfolio is a system that creates high-quality images from radar. Conventional radar images typically are blips and fuzzy shapes. Synthetic aperture radar not only renders clear, sharp images, it also provides the means to capture images of precise locations at different times. OAM uses this capability to perform before-and-after analysis to detect changes in specific areas.
"So, if you have a database, and then you have an event, you go back and take another radar shot from the same geospatial location, then you can compare the before and after with analysis in this radar spectrum, and you can determine if something has changed," Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said.
In recent years, OAM has used this imaging system to support FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during floods in North Dakota, Minnesota, and the Mississippi River Valley, as well as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. The system frequently comes into play for border security, as Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik illustrated:
"So, for example, we have fences across the southwest border. The cartels are cutting into the fence and doing damage to the fence, so they can put people or narcotics through. That has to be patrolled and the fence has to be inspected. So one very effective way of inspecting the miles of fence we have is we fly the Predator aircraft across the fence, and using the synthetic aperture radar, we can tell when there's been a difference to the fence. These images are such high quality that we can tell when there's been footprints on the ground. So analysts can take these high definition images and, with analysis, provide intelligence that there's a problem with the fence, there's people moving in this area."
In addition to synthetic aperture radar, OAM fact sheets note that Predator aircraft also carry these components, depending on the aircraft's function and variant:
A crucial aspect of the Predator series of aircraft is its ability to fly at high altitudes — typically 19,000 feet — where the aircraft cannot be seen or heard from the ground. On night missions, the aircraft usually are flown unlighted, Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said. Additionally, the aircraft can be flown up to 20 hours at a time, which allows for long monitoring missions along the length of the southwestern border.
"So that gives you the capability overhead over a security mission area for us. It cannot be seen, it cannot be heard," Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said. The capability is one "that can talk with all our agents on the ground, that can see at night with the forward-looking infrared system that can take imagery analysis with the radar through weather, through clouds, and interface with agents on the ground using night vision goggles to pinpoint targets. We use these things to our advantage tactically on a routine basis."
He offered an example of a recent border security mission in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border with Mexico:
"They were flying over and looking at the Mexican side and, lo and behold, a bunch of trucks drive up on the south side. They unload a bunch of boats. They inflate the boats. They load the boats with bales of marijuana. They cross the Rio Grande — all this while the Predator overhead is watching this. Of course the Predator is talking with law enforcement officials in the state of Texas — state and local — working with U.S. Border Patrol on the ground. The Predator stays overhead; it tracks the vehicles. When the vehicles drive into south Texas, the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Border Patrol take down the vehicles, get the dope, apprehend the individuals. That's typical of how having that capability overhead can result in mission efficiency and effectiveness that you wouldn't ordinarily get." Additionally, Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik provided a maritime example. It involves the use of a Predator Guardian (maritime variant) that flew out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in a mission to the Turks and Caicos Islands in partnership with the government of Bahamas, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and other agencies.
"We're routinely flying patrols in the Bahamas and in the areas in and around the approaches to the straits of Florida," he said. "Based on intelligence, there was some thought that there would be a drug shipment from the Bahamas to south Florida. The Predator, as a result of this intelligence, picked up a boat underway, unlighted, and informed our agents, our mariners, on the ground. That boat was interdicted with some Bahamian nationals and others carrying narcotics — in this case, it was cocaine — toward the straits of Florida."
As the CBP continues to fly Predator missions, other agencies are learning about the system's capabilities and requesting its services. In addition to supporting emergency efforts for floods and hurricanes, the OAM also has assisted the Interior Department and the State of New Mexico during forest fires this year, Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik said. He favors a policy of measured growth of the fleet, coordinating the acquisition of aircraft with the training of new pilots.
"So increasingly, as these technologies become more available and more understood, there will be more and more use of these things for a wide variety of missions in the future," he said. The Air and Marine program has developed from the merger of the aviation and maritime legacies of the former Border Patrol mission (primarily humanitarian and immigration concerns) and the former Customs Service mission (primarily narcotics interdiction), Assistant Commission Kostelnik said.
He said OAM has created the first dedicated homeland security air and marine force in the world:
"We're a law-enforcement air force. We have law-enforcement entitlements. All our pilots and mariners are federal agents. We carry weapons — handguns and rifles. But increasingly in our aviation and maritime capabilities … we're operating DOD-like equipment. But we're doing it not for defense missions; we're doing it in the homeland."