The Eyes of Texas are Upon You

by Published on
Wikicommons
MQ-1 Predator Drone

Texas’ Department of Public Safety has been using unmanned drones in certain high-risk operations north of the Texas-Mexico border, according to the Washington Post.

Back in August, I reported how Governor Rick Perry and other legislators pushed for Predator drone patrols over the southern border.  These are the same unmanned large aircraft that are used for bombing strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since September, we’ve had regular Predator drone patrols over Texas border communities (without the bombs, of course). In Arizona, drones have been patrolling since 2006. As with any military technology unveiled along the U.S.-Mexico border, it doesn’t take long for it to be adopted within the interior of the United States.

A DPS pilot told the Post that the agency had used an unmanned drone near Austin in 2009 to sweep a suspect’s house.  DPS had a SWAT team waiting to execute a search warrant but the team “wanted a last-minute aerial sweep of the property, in part to check for unseen dangers,” according to the article. DPS feared that if it sent in a helicopter the suspect might shoot it down.

Instead law enforcement “launched a bird-size device called a Wasp that floated hundreds of feet into the sky and instantly beamed live video to agents on the ground.” The SWAT team stormed the house and arrested the suspect.

“The nice thing is it’s covert,”  Bill C. Nabors Jr., chief pilot with the Texas DPS told the Post, “You don’t hear it, and unless you know what you’re looking for, you can’t see it.”

A Wasp drone is one of the lighter models out there. Just a foot long in wingspan it weighs less than a pound. There is a huge difference in both cost and size from the Predator drone patrolling the border which costs $4.5 million and weighs 10,000 pounds.

These drones pose huge privacy and safety concerns, which the public has not had an opportunity to debate  Ordinary citizens have no idea whose flying these drones or when one might fall out of the sky. They also don’t know if they’re being monitored by one. Drones like the Predator B can provide real-time footage from the sky for up to 24 hours. Last month, the Mexican Army crashed one of its small drones in the backyard of an El Paso farmhouse. The drone was a Mini Orbiter unmanned aerial, according to the El Paso Times. These drones weigh about 3.5 pounds and are built by Aeronautics Defense Systems based in Israel.

Apparently, the U.S. military was also unaware that Mexico was using drones along the border. U.S. officials returned the wreckage to Mexican officials shortly after the crash.

The push to authorize the use of more unmanned drones is outpacing the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to regulate them. And the public is clueless unless there is a crash.

In a congressional Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing last summer, officials from the FAA warned that unmanned drones have high accident rates. The Predator drone is 353 times as likely to crash as a commercial jet. U.S. Border Patrol has crashed at least two Predator Bs since they started flying them in 2006. Luckily, no one has been killed in any of these accidents.

Besides the recent Predator drone flight approvals, the number of requests to fly an unmanned aircraft have ballooned in the last five years, according to FAA’s testimony. The skyrocketing demand is creating huge headaches for an overburdened and under funded agency, which has only a handful of people administering the authorizations.

Nancy Kalinowski, vice president of Systems Operations and Air Traffic Organization at the FAA, told congressional legislators at the hearing that not only was her agency authorizing flights for the Predator B drones but also hundreds of other types of unmanned aircraft for universities, law enforcement and other government agencies.  Each time the agency grants one of these authorizations, called a certificate of authorization, or COA, it means a piece of civilian airspace must be carved out for the unmanned aircraft to fly where it won’t collide with piloted planes.

As of August 2010, the FAA had issued 268 COAs on 133 different types of unmanned aircraft.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more “eyes in the skies” over Texas. At the very least, law enforcement should be making the public aware that they are using unmanned drones in their communities.

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.