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November 30, 2005

FAA restrictions bar wider use of drones to patrol border
By Greta Wodele, CongressDaily

President Bush wants unmanned drones used along the U.S.-Mexican border as part of his broader immigration initiative unveiled this week, but border patrol officials are still negotiating with the Federal Aviation Administration about where and when it can deploy the systems.

"We're going to use drones to be able to help enforce the border in rural Texas and in rural New Mexico and rural Arizona," Bush said Tuesday. "Slowly, but surely, technology is being employed up and down the border, and that's a key part of our strategy." The president's proposal also includes a guestworker program and bolstering immigration laws.

After more than two years of negotiations, the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Customs and Border Protection Directorate recently finalized a deal with the FAA to fly one drone in the Tucson, Ariz., area.

CBP also issued an environmental impact study in September that helps clear the way for an expansion of UAV operations from the western corner of Arizona to the eastern corner of Texas, but the agency still needs to work out a deal with the FAA to fly the drones outside restricted military airspace. Because of the restrictions, CBP officials have been forced to deploy a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters to patrol the rest of the southern border.

A CBP spokesman said Wednesday that the agency has recently received the "green light" to buy its second UAV early next year and plans to deploy the drone in the Tucson area until CBP and FAA officials reach additional agreements.

"We have to talk and ask for permission, but FAA is very strict," he said. "We're looking at what we can do to get exemptions" from FAA regulations or maximize the requirements set by FAA for UAVs.

Lawmakers this year repeatedly called on the Homeland Security Department to buy UAVs for border security after the successful conclusion of a trial program in Arizona. The department signed an initial contract in September with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to buy its first UAV and support services for $14 million.

The second UAV is expected to cost half that amount, and the agency could spend up to $59 million for four UAVs under the contract, said the spokesman. Congress provided $10 million for the agency's UAV program in the recently enacted fiscal 2006 Homeland Security appropriations measure.

"Ideally, with UAVs, the focus is to create a virtual curtain of air detection," said the spokesman about deploying the drones from Arizona to Texas.

The agency argues the drones provide significant financial savings compared to operating and maintaining its fleet of helicopters. The agency spends $4,000 every time it launches a Blackhawk and must pay additional labor costs.

The drones, called "Predator B," have the capacity to fly 30 consecutive hours without refueling at 230 miles per hour and over remote land border areas. The UAVs are equipped with electro-optic sensors, radar and infrared cameras and can immediately and automatically transfer images to ground controls.