Drones used by CBP agents to patrol the deserts north of Mexico - Fox 2 News Headlines

Drones used by CBP agents to patrol the deserts north of Mexico

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PHOENIX (KSAZ) - For nearly ten years, unmanned drones have been quietly patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border. The drones track drugs and people entering the country illegally.

They're expensive to operate at $3,200 per flight hour, but they are a powerful asset in border security.

At Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona crews from the Customs & Border Protection's Office of Air & Marine launched a Predator-B unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV.

Just don't call it a drone, to these guys that's a four letter word.

"These things are so far from a drone its not even funny," said a UAV pilot.

It's true there is no one on board but a pilot is flying it. They're just flying it remotely using joysticks and controls from inside a trailer next to the runway.

"The flying is very similar to an actual airplane, the controls are similar, and the autopilot set ups are very similar to an actual airplane," said the pilot who did not want to be identified.

When you see pictures of the Predator you tend to think it's small, more like a model airplane. Then when you see the real thing it's a lot bigger, the wingspan alone is more than 60 feet. It's a big aircraft, and it's an engineering marvel.

Predator's are best known for killing terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan but increasingly they're being used for border surveillance.

The aircraft can stay aloft for 21 straight hours and beam back crystal clear pictures to the ground as they track illegal immigrants and drug smugglers crossing into the United States.

"Our goal is to locate the groups and then what we do is use our multiple radios to guide agents in on the groups," he said.

We witnessed that activity first hand in 2006 while riding in a blackhawk helicopter with CBP agents. A Predator UAV was 15,000 feet in the air and saw a group of 60 snaking through the Arizona Desert. The UAV guided the crew of the blackhawk in, and agents rounded them up.

A bubble underneath the nose of the Predator is equipped with an array of high quality cameras and sensors.

"There 're multiple fields of view, we can zoom at different levels," he said.

That's why the Predator was built with the propeller in the tail, to leave an unobstructed view for the cameras. Even from 20,000 feet you can clearly spot a smuggler in the desert.

"Based on the camera types we can locate groups in day or night," said the pilot.

But the Predator is not only working the border. In April, we watched it provide pictures and air support as crews battled the Brown Fire outside of Sierra Vista. While one lens captured a line of fire retardant dropped by tankers, another lens gave insight into hot spots.

From 2010-2012, Predator B's flew over 700 missions not related to border security, including assisting with flooding in North Dakota last year and most recently Tornadoes that damaged the south.

CBP operates 4 Predator B UAV's out of Fort Huachuca. The agency has a nationwide fleet of 10 and hopes to have 24 of them flying by 2016.

"They provide such a vast capability to the border that I think this is the way the CBP will go in the future," he said.
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