One of the first Predators deployed by the border service crashed in 2006 when its remote pilot, a contractor for the plane manufacturer General Atomics, turned off the engine by mistake. The plane missed a residential area by 1,000 feet as it plunged.
U.S. protocols require the drones to stay on the American side of the Rio Grande. “We don’t do Mexico,” said Lothar Eckardt, director of the Homeland Security Department’s National Air Security Operations Center in Corpus Christi.
But the aerial platforms do peer a little over the fence into Mexico.
What can they see? “We can see cows, pigs, coyotes, sometimes rabbits,” Lothar said. “At 20,000 feet, you can see windshield wipers, you can see if a person is running or walking, you can see backpacks sometimes. We can see Border Patrol, but not their uniforms, and so we can communicate with them and say, ‘Wave your arms,’ and that way we can distinguish between our guys and the bad guys.”
Privacy and cost concerns
Privacy watchdogs are concerned about the use of drones over domestic airspace. “The loss of privacy is real. You want to sunbathe in the nude on your own property? Now you can’t be sure nobody is watching you,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Americans will have to wonder if our enthusiasm for catching illegal immigrants is worth sacrificing our freedoms.”
U.S. courts allow law enforcement to conduct surveillance from helicopters and airplanes, and privacy protections end when the public ventures outdoors. The domestic Predator’s surveillance cameras do not allow them to see through windows.
Despite its initial reluctance, the Federal Aviation Administration allows the drones to fly a high-altitude corridor along the Mexican and Canadian borders but forbids them over congested urban areas — for safety, not privacy, concerns. Because of the orientation of the runway at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, the Predators are grounded when the wind direction requires them to pass over a neighboring suburb.
The mission over the Arizona ranchlands last month was typical. The Predator was searching for scouts who hide in the brush and signal with a cellphone when smugglers can attempt to cross with a load of marijuana or humans. The drone did not find any scouts that night. The night before, however, they helped the Border Patrol in Texas capture a dozen illegal migrants.
The Predators reached a milestone in June, having flown 10,000 hours. The Homeland Security Department reported that their drone operations have led to the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers since the program began.
Those numbers are not very impressive. A total of 327,577 illegal migrants were caught at the southwestern border in fiscal 2011, meaning the drones have contributed only to a fraction of arrests.
With an hour of flight time costing $3,600, it costs about $7,054 for each illegal immigrant or smuggler caught, based on numbers calculated from a recent Government Accountability Office report to Congress. The government has spent $240 million buying and maintaining its domestic drones, not including their operation.
It is hard to put a dollar value on the services the Predators can supply, Kostelnik said, citing as an example a scenario in which a nuclear reactor, like the one in Japan damaged by the earthquake and tsunami in March, needed to be inspected from the air.
“What is the value of a ‘can’t be seen, can’t be heard’ technology when you absolutely, really need it?” Kostelnik said. “The unmanned aircraft does things nothing else can do.”
The authors of the GAO report were not so sure.
They highlighted an obscure program called “Big Miguel” run by the Joint Task Force North out of the Army’s Biggs Field in El Paso that leased a piloted Cessna with an infrared sensor that cost $1.2 million for the year and assisted in the capture of 6,500 to 8,000 undocumented immigrants and seizure of $54 million in marijuana, according to defense officials. That would make the Big Miguel cost per illegal immigrant caught about $230.
“Congress and the taxpayers ought to demand some kind of real cost-benefit analysis of drones,” said Tom Barry, director of the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank, who has studied the domestic Predator program. “My sense is that they would conclude these aircraft aren’t worth the money.”