A pilot program that uses unmanned aerial drones to monitor illegal activity along the Arizona-Mexico border is gaining momentum, border officials say.
Two Hermes 450 drones, which were launched over Arizona on June 25, use thermal and night-vision equipment to spot illegal immigrants trying to cross the desert into the United States. They can detect movement from 15 miles up, read a license plate, view a vehicle’s occupants and even detect weapons.
The drone program, which is financed by the Department of Homeland Security, is part of stepped-up surveillance officials hope will stem the tide of illegal immigrants who have made Arizona the busiest illegal entry point along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
So far, results of the program have been encouraging, said Andy Adame, a spokesman with the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which covers most of the Arizona-Mexico border.
Adame said the aircraft are being used aggressively as part of everyday operations as agents become more accustomed to the technology and contractors with the drone company become more familiar with the area.
In 39 days of surveillance of the border, the drones have led to the apprehension of 248 illegal immigrants, he said.
“This is the first time we’ve ever used this technology, so we were apprehensive about what the outcome was going to be,” Adame said. “But now we’re starting to get very excited.”
On Monday, nearly 70 people were apprehended with the help of a drone, proving how effective the drones are and how comfortable agents are using them, Adame said.
The drones also have led to the seizure of 518 pounds of marijuana and two vehicle used for immigrant smuggling.
The Tucson Sector has apprehended a total of about 10,000 illegal immigrants since June 25.
The waist-high gray drones bearing the Homeland Security Department’s seal weigh almost 1,000 pounds, have a 35-foot wingspan and can fly faster than 100 mph. They patrol at 12,000 to 15,000 feet and can stay aloft for 20 hours at a time.
It takes 12 to 18 people to operate the drones and monitor images sent back. Using drone technology, agents are able to make video recordings of illegal activity, which helps prosecute criminals.
On July 22, an immigrant smuggler threw five softball-size rocks at an agency helicopter 30 feet in the air before he was arrested. If one of the rocks had hit a main rotor, Adame said the helicopter could have crashed.
The encounter was recorded by one of the drones and will be used as evidence in the trial of the smuggler, 32-year-old Antonio Eretza Flores.
Following the Arizona test, the Department of Homeland Security plans to try the drones in northern states, over the Great Lakes, and in Puerto Rico, said Robert Smith, head of the Customs and Border Protection’s unmanned aerial drone program.
He said the department is testing the drones in several climates to determine how well they perform in extreme weather.
The Arizona test ends Sept. 30. Tests in the cold and tropical climates should be completed by Sept. 30, 2005, Smith said.
Whether drones will be used permanently along the nation’s borders won’t be decided until at least 2006.
The overall cost of the mission is estimated to be at least $10 million.
Elizabeth Ohmann, secretary and founder of Humane Borders, which has placed more than 50 water stations in the desert to aid illegal immigrants, said the group does not support using the aircraft to monitor the desert.
“It’s another step toward militarization of the border,” she said. “There are other ways that it could be handled.”