Another Drone Bites the Dust

A Mexican military drone crashes in El Paso
by Published on
Photo by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

If El Pasoans have their eyes on the skies these days it’s for good reason. Back in June, a Department of Homeland Security flown Predator drone went off course on its way to El Paso to patrol the Texas-Mexico border. Now comes news that the Mexican Army crashed one of its drones in the El Paso lower valley.

The crashed drone was reported late Tuesday evening to the local police. The El Paso Times reported the story Thursday. The national online news site Talking Points Memo also picked up the story, making the crash one of its main headlines for the day.

El Paso Detective Mike Baranyay reported to the Times: “I was told that it crashed in somebody’s back yard, and that no one was injured. I was paged at 6:28 p.m. on Tuesday, so it happened shortly before that. We were told it was not a police matter.”

The Times reported that the crash occurred after sunset in the yard of a farmhouse on the outskirts of the city. Most of the homes have lots of one to two acres. The drone wreckage has already been returned to the Mexican government.

Fortunately, this was a very small drone and no one was hurt. The drone was a Mini Orbiter unmanned aerial, according to the Times. The drone weighs about 3.5 pounds and is built by Aeronautics Defense Systems based in Israel. The Predator B drones that the Border Patrol flies over the Texas-Mexico border weigh 1,000 pounds and can do some serious damage if they crash.  Back in 2006, a Predator B plowed into a hillside outside of Nogales, Arizona. Luckily, no one was killed.

Back in May, I wrote an article about the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) concerns about the skyrocketing increase of drones in the national airspace. At the time, I hadn’t even thought about drones on the Mexican side of the border. But it makes perfect sense. After all, the U.S. government is giving Mexico $1.4 billion under the Plan Merida initiative to buy aircraft and other equipment to fight the drug cartels. The Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported last August that the Mexican Army had bought $24 million worth of Hermes 450 drones, which are slightly smaller than the Predator Bs. The drones provide real time imagery footage and are used for surveillance and finding large fields of marijuana, meth labs and opium fields.

So, now border residents shouldn’t only be concerned about DHS drones but also Mexican military drones dropping out of the sky. Great.

The FAA, which oversees the safety of U.S. airspace, reports that the Border Patrol’s accident rate for drones is 353 times higher than for commercial airliners. Among the FAA concerns are lost communication links between the drone and the ground pilot. Because communication is on unprotected radio frequencies, dropped links have been an ongoing issue with the Predator B. A dropped link causes what the FAA calls a “deviation”: The aircraft does something unplanned or unexpected — like what happened over El Paso last summer — and violates an airspace regulation. In 2010, the FAA reported that Border Patrol drones had had seven deviations. Another concern is that unlike manned aircraft, drones don’t have collision warning systems. And there is always the human factor. Without a pilot on board, the operator can’t always gauge the weather or, as in the Nogales crash, whether they turned the engine off.

Despite the FAA’s concerns, Texas legislators and Gov. Rick Perry pushed the agency for nearly a year to open up civilian airspace in Texas. And after months of political pressure, the FAA relented. Now we’ve got all kinds of machinery flying over our heads from both sides of the Rio Grande. Let’s hope God really is our co-pilot because when it comes to anyone paying attention in Washington D.C. we’re out of luck.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.