The bipartisan group of U.S. senators working on a bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration system released a generally broad set of principles a few weeks back. Among the plan’s few specifics was a promise to increase the number of unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly known as drones — patrolling the border.
Having eyes in the sky to help agents keep a watch on remote parts of the 2,000-mile long U.S-Mexico border seems obviously helpful. But critics say border officials have had a hard time showing results of the drones’ work in securing the homeland.
“The track record is abysmal,” said Tom Barry, an expert on border issues at the left-leaning Center for International Policy, based in D.C.
Barry and other critics say border officials have had a hard time showing concrete results of the multimillion-dollar drones’ patrolling work.
“They don't have a strategy, they don't have the infrastructure, the personnel to fly the drones,” Barry said.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General voiced some of these criticisms in a report last May. But that report didn’t assess the overall value of the border drone program.
So here’s an attempt (admittedly simplified) at a cost-benefit analysis.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s air patrol fleet currently includes eight Predator B and two Guardian drones (Guardian UAVs are a maritime version of the Predator B) stationed at Fort Huachuca, AZ, Corpus Christi, TX, Cape Canaveral, FL and near the northern border in Grand Forks, ND.
On the U.S.-Mexico border, they can be used to patrol as far west as San Diego.
CBP's drones are made by San Diego-based General Atomics, which also provides UAVs to the U.S. military to hunt down terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. (The company received more than $1.5 billion in defense contracts for UAVs from 2008 to 2011, according to a 2012 report from the National University System Institute for Policy Research.)
Border authorities use the drones to provide what’s called “situational awareness.” In layman’s terms: knowing what’s going on around you.
The government purchased each drone used on the border for about $18 million a piece, for a total of $180 million.
They cost a little more than $3,000 an hour to operate, according to government documents and testimony from CBP officials.
The border drones flew more than 5,700 hours in fiscal year 2012, according to CBP, for a total operating cost of at least $18 million last year.
What did we get for that cost?
According to CBP, in 2012 drones helped seize more than 66,000 lbs. of drugs and helped agents apprehend a 143 people involved in illegal activity.
That’s less than 3 percent of all drugs seized by border agents last year, and less than 0.04 percent of the 365,000 would-be illegal border crossers caught by agents.
So are the drones worth their weight in taxpayer dollars? On a recent border tour to stump for immigration reform, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said yes.
“I think the drones have been effective,” she said, “and continue to be so.”
However, Napolitano said, not all border security assets are right for all parts of the border.
“We have to leave it to the professionals to continually challenge ourselves and reevaluate what we're doing to make sure that we are providing and getting the maximum amount out of the assets that we do have,” she said.
Supporters of the border drones say they make it safer for agents on the ground to do their job. They say they scare off smugglers and illegal border crossers.
But perhaps there are less expensive aerial surveillance systems that could do the same job.
In a small lab at San Diego State University, researcher Pete Coulter showed a reporter images he and his research team collected during a recent experiment using a piloted light aircraft.
They went to a remote area near the border, attached a store-bought digital camera to the plane, and had it take periodic photos while team members on the ground moved themselves and their vehicles around.
Run through image processing software, the results were impressive. The shadow of a man — Coulter — was clearly visible, even though he was well hidden by bushes.
Coulter said the aircraft used to take these images could easily be remote controlled. And the whole thing would probably cost around $300,000 — a fraction of what a Predator drone costs.
Researchers at SDSU think these types of small aircraft equipped with simple surveillance systems could be valuable assets in the quest to secure the border. And they’re trying to get border authorities interested.
But CBP is not looking at other options for drones, an official said. In fact, the agency already has a deal with General Atomics to buy up to fourteen additional Predators for the border.
If the senators insist on their drones, under the General Atomics deal, the government wouldn't even have to look at other bids.
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