Droning In Dollars

With unmanned aircraft now patrolling the Texas-Mexico border, safety risks aren't the only concerns.

photo courtesy Homeland Security

At a July congressional hearing, Mark Borkowski, an executive director in charge of border security at the Department of Homeland Security, made a startling admission: The U.S. government had no viable plan to secure the border. “We have frankly failed in delivering what was promised in the beginning,” Borkowski told legislators. “So the question for us is, what do we do now?”

The comment was startling because of the money and resources the government has invested in stopping people from crossing from Mexico to the United States. Borkowski was testifying on the recently scrapped $8 billion SBInet project, once hyped as a cutting-edge “virtual fence” of video cameras and sensors that would secure the border. Congress finally had pulled the plug after a series of government audits revealed technical glitches and malfunctioning equipment. The federal government already had spent more than $4 billion on 700 miles of steel fence along the southern border, with negligible effects on immigration. It had also doubled the number of Border Patrol agents, from 10,000 to more than 20,000, and called the National Guard to the border. Meanwhile, people have kept making their way into the United States, voters are becoming increasingly anti-immigrant, and lawmakers are looking for a magic bullet to solve border security. “Our porous border endangers every American, yet Washington refuses to make border security a priority,” wrote Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn in a June op-ed.

Cornyn and others think Washington should now spend tens of millions of dollars to deploy unmanned aircraft along the border. So starting next month, two Predator drones will be flying over the Texas-Mexico border. Will using this expensive technology be any more successful than other attempts to secure the border, or will it be another boondoggle like SBInet?

The Predator is an odd choice. It was designed for dangerous military missions that would put U.S. pilots at risk. The model that would fly along the border, the Predator B, has a 66-foot wingspan, weighs 10,000 pounds, and can remain in the air for up to 20 hours without refueling. The Rio Grande’s banks are lined with Vietnam-era sensors. When one is triggered, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a Predator can hover overhead and determine whether it’s 50 people with backpacks filled with marijuana or a false alarm. If it’s smugglers, the drone’s pilot, who controls the plane from the ground, radios Border Patrol headquarters, which sends a helicopter to interdict the smugglers. Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Laredo lauded the Predators as “eyes in the skies,” and called them a “force multiplier” when working in tandem with Border Patrol. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson said she’d like to see “round-the clock aerial surveillance as the standard for all 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.”

But some inside the federal government have concerns about the safety and effectiveness of drones along the border. The Federal Aviation Administration, 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. Despite these concerns, Texas legislators and Gov. Rick Perry pushed the FAA for nearly a year to open up civilian airspace in Texas. After months of political pressure, the FAA relented. As of Sept. 1, Texas will have two Border Patrol drones patrolling its border with Mexico.

Drones have flown along the border previously, but over more rural areas in New Mexico and Arizona. In July, one drone was authorized to fly as far east as Big Bend National Park. Border Patrol spokesperson Juan Muñoz-Torres said that since 2005, when the program started, the Predator fleet had helped apprehend 5,000 undocumented immigrants and 25,000 pounds of illegal drugs. But there have been problems. In 2006, a private contractor working for the Border Patrol was controlling a Predator B outside of Nogales, Arizona. He accidentally turned off the drone’s engine. As the Predator began to lose altitude, air traffic control lost radar contact with the aircraft. In a small, desert community outside of Nogales, people awoke to what sounded like a bomb rattling their windows. The drone had skittered 95 feet down the mountainside, shattering as it plowed through the desert brush. Tom Duggin, whose house sat 1,000 feet from the crash site, got quite a scare. “If it had hit my house, I’d be dead,” he told media.

The accident made national headlines at the time, but hasn’t deterred state leaders. Texas Republicans and some Democrats have made the FAA’s cautious stance a symbol of the federal government’s failure to secure the border. This summer, Sen. Cornyn issued a flurry of press releases calling the Obama administration’s efforts “too little too late” and “anemic at best.” Cornyn announced that he’d block the Senate confirmation of  Michael Huerta as deputy administrator at the FAA until the agency authorized a second drone, to be stationed in Corpus Christi. Next month the second drone will begin patrolling over the remaining Texas border.


While legislators trumpeted their success, the FAA had words of warning for them during a July 15 Homeland Security subcommittee hearing chaired by Cuellar. FAA official Nancy Kalinowski was on the defensive. She reminded legislators that her agency oversees “the most complex airspace in the world,” with more than 50,000 commercial flights per day, 500 air traffic control facilities, and 19,000 airports. The agency was under pressure to authorize flights not only for the Predator B, but also for hundreds of other types of unmanned aircraft from universities, law enforcement and various government agencies. In the past five years alone, the number of requests has ballooned, creating huge headaches for an overburdened and underfunded agency with a handful of people administering the authorizations.

The agency is risk-averse for a reason, said professor John Hansman, an aviation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They don’t want anything to ruin their safety record,” he said.  “A lot of their safety measures have to do with pilot safety. They don’t know how to deal with a plane that doesn’t have a pilot on board.”

Kalinowski said her agency was moving faster to authorize the drone flights, but she took issue with the Predator’s safety record. From 2006 to July 2010, the Border Patrol had an accident rate of 52.7 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. By comparison, commercial flights had an accident rate of 0.149 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, she said.  “Unmanned aircraft … were originally and primarily designed for military purposes to support the war fighter,” she told legislators. “And although the technology incorporated into [the drones] has advanced, their safety record warrants careful review.”

Among FAA concerns were 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, and violates an airspace regulation. This year, the FAA reported that Border Patrol drones have had seven deviations. Another concern is that unlike manned aircraft, drones don’t have collision warning systems. There is always the human factor. Without a pilot on board, the operator can’t always gauge the weather or, as in the Arizona crash, whether they turned the engine off.

Border Patrol officials say the FAA is calculating safety data incorrectly. They say that the agency has flown only 7,000 hours since the program started in 2005. The FAA uses incidents per 100,000 hours to calculate its safety rates, which Border Patrol officials say makes the Border Patrol accident rate look worse than it is. Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, who oversees the Border Patrol drone program, said the Predator B is one of the safest unmanned aircraft flying: “We are at least as safe as manned aircraft.”

Kostelnik said lost links “happen quite often.” In fact, during the Predator B’s first flight into the Big Bend region, from Arizona in June, the drone lost its communication link. He said Border Patrol had a series of safeguards, including a second co-pilot, to pick up lost links. “When it’s lost link, it doesn’t mean it’s out of control,” he said. “It’s programmed to stay on course until it gains link again. If it never regains the link, then it’s programmed to go somewhere where there’s no one around and self-destruct.”

During the July 15 hearing, at least one legislator was skeptical about whether the $10 million Predator B was the border-security answer Congress hoped it would be. Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi who also serves as chair of the Homeland Security Committee, told Kostelnik that it had been difficult to find data on the number of illegal-immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures facilitated by drones. “I was in Arizona last weekend, along the southern border, Douglas, Arizona, the Tucson sector. It’s difficult to say to the ranchers a [drone] is better than boots on the ground,” Thompson said.

There are other concerns. Video cameras above American cities make some civil rights groups, like the ACLU, uncomfortable. Cuellar said they shouldn’t worry about privacy violations. “They’re not going to be spying on anyone,” he said. “Law enforcement has the training and the attorneys to make sure they don’t violate anyone’s privacy.”

It’s unclear whether Border Patrol has the manpower to interpret the massive amounts of imagery data a drone generates. Congressman Christopher Carney, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, was skeptical during the hearing. In the Navy reserve, Carney serves as a drone mission commander. “One of the challenges we have is … interpreting all the data gathered … even in the small, short duration missions,” he said. “Do you have [information analysts] in place that can look at the information and interpret it … and do the studies that you need to do, looking at, for example, known crossing areas?”

Kostelnik said Border Patrol was working on a data center similar to that of the Department of Defense. Trained analysts would do real-time analysis as video flowed in. “We’ll have to grow those analysts over time,” he said.

Border Patrol may invest millions in its Predator B fleet only to find that something safer and cheaper is already available. Miniaturization is the future of drone engineering. The Defense Department is working with companies to miniaturize video and sensor technologies used by the Predator B. These drones weigh between 10 and 15 pounds, and cost a fraction of a Predator B. If a miniature drone crashes, “We’re talking a bird strike,” said a company representative working on the technology, “but it probably won’t kill anybody.”

Despite these concerns, the United States is doubling down on drones. Legislators, including Cornyn and Cuellar, recently lobbied the Obama administration to include $32 million to expand Homeland Security’s drone fleet. The funding was approved Aug. 5. By the end of 2011, Border Patrol could have as many as 10 Predator B drones. A drone costs approximately $4.5 million and another $6 million for the equipment to operate it. That’s before you hire pilots and analysts to operate them.

“You also have to ask whether they could do it for cheaper.” said professor Hansman. “You could pay a pilot in a Cessna $20 an hour, or spend $1,000 an hour operating an unmanned aerial vehicle.”


Hear Melissa’s interview with KUT’s Jennifer Stayton on the Texas Observer Podcast Series.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 3:23 pm CST