The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The border patrol’s love affair with drones, in one map

( <a href="">GAO</a> )

Ten years ago, the nation had 10,000 federal agents patrolling the border. Now, that figure has more than doubled. But we haven't just added manpower to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) force. We've also added drones. Nine of them, to be exact. In the last three years alone, CBP drones spent an average of 16 hours a day watching for smuggling and illegal crossings.

That's from a new report by the Government Accountability Office, which finds that the heaviest use of drones for border patrol purposes has been (unsurprisingly) in the South. Fifty-seven percent of all flight hours logged by CBP since 2011 have taken place at the edges of four states: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. By comparison, CBP drones have spent nearly one in five flight hours patrolling the border with Canada.

In all, the CBP has flown over 18,000 hours' worth of missions with unmanned aerial systems. Expect that number to grow as the CBP adds more drones to its fleet; some projections have the agency eventually flying as many as 24 such vehicles by 2016.

What's surprising is how often CBP's drones have wound up in "restricted and foreign airspace" — nearly 10 percent of the time, according to the GAO. Presumably these missions are flown with the knowledge of our neighbors. But it's unclear just what they're doing over there.