U.S. patrols border with unmanned plane

UAVs expensive but "invaluable" in identifying illegal aliens making crossings.

With huge protests in Los Angeles and around the country yesterday, stepped up immigration controls, California's Minutemen patrols and a proposal to build triple-fenced, militarized security zone stretching from San Ysidro to the Otay border—immigration issues are hot topics these days. The US Border Patrol has added another weapon into its arsenal to keep out illegals and monitor the border.

The new invention is the UAV (Unmanned Arial Vehicle), which can  “can identify an object the size of a milk carton from an altitude of 60,00 feet" and "provide real-time imagery to ground control operators who can pass that information on to Border Patrol agents," according to a 2005 Congressional Research Service report.

The UAV can fly 18 to 24 hours consecutively at an altitude of 18,000 feet, has electro-optical/infrared imagers that can view a license plate and distinguish between humans and animals. This has been invaluable in arresting illegals and making drug seizures. It's been so successful that officials are planning to add a second UAV in June, reports an article in Federal Computer Week.

Chief David Aguilar said yesterday that "officials will increase the UAV surveillance footprint from 150 miles to 300 miles in Arizona at the end of this month. And because the program has been a success, officials will start using a second UAV in Arizona by June," he said.

The technology has helped agents make more than 1,000 apprehensions and many drug seizures, he said. It’s also been valuable in helping improve officers’ safety because they can use UAVs in certain situations before they intervene, he said. UAVs also act as a deterrent because agency officials have notified people that some areas are monitored by air," he added.

The bads news that UAV are expensive to buy ($14 million dollar price tag) and to maintain. There are other concerns, as well. A UAV cannot detect other aircraft, terrain or civil airspace users in their flight paths, and they cannot maneuver to avoid a collision.  It also has trouble operating in bad weather.

In 2005, more than 217,000 illegal aliens were taken into custody. Of the 217,000, about 168,000 were returned to more than 100 countries.