Now Laredo Wants a Drone Too

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PHOTO BY VANGUARD DEFENSE INDUSTRIES
The ShadowHawk Drone Copter.

Last month, Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar joined Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas for a demonstration of a ShadowHawk drone at a Laredo firefighters’ training facility.

The drone, a 50-pound helicopter about seven feet long, whirred above the elected officials—operated remotely from a laptop and steered by a joystick. The unmanned helicopter can fly up to 50 miles per hour and hover at 700 feet taking video or infrared pictures.

It’s the same drone the Montgomery County sheriff’s office purchased last year, built by the Conroe-based defense contractor Vanguard Defense Industries, which is making a push to sell the drones to domestic law enforcement.

The meeting in Laredo was put together by the sheriff’s office, where Sheriff Martin Cuellar also happens to be Congressman Henry Cuellar’s brother. Congressman Cuellar is a big proponent of drones, and co-chairs the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, which formed in 2009.

The mission of the “drone caucus,” according to its website, is to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”

Not surprisingly, the drone industry is a big fan of the caucus. The industry’s trade association, the AUVSI, worked with the caucus last year to hold a drone fair and sponsored an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Action Day on Capitol Hill.

The drone industry also generously supports the caucus members. During the 2010 election cycle drone-related PACs donated more than $1.7 million to caucus members. From 2011 to 2012, Congressman Cuellar received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from defense companies working on drones.

Vanguard’s drone copter doesn’t come cheap for a cash-strapped law enforcement agency. It costs at least $340,000, according to the company’s CEO. But in many cases, the federal government is willing to pick up the tab through homeland security funding. The feds paid for Montgomery County’s copter drone last year, which cost around $300,00.

Local sheriffs can apply for funding under a program called Operation Stonegarden which has the amorphous purpose of “enhancing coordination among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to secure the borders with Mexico, Canada, and international waters,” according to the DHS website.

After the drone copter demonstration, Mayor Salinas said Laredo was interested in the technology but the feds would have to pick up the tab. “If they are committing to making the border safer…then show us the money,” Salinas told Laredo’s Pro 8 News.

Not to worry, Congressman Cuellar told the station. “I think we can.” It can’t hurt that his brother, the sheriff, is eligible to apply for Operation Stonegarden funding. “The mayor and I are talking about approaching the sheriff to ask whether maybe the city and county could use this money together jointly,” Cuellar said.

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. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.