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Scott Valley Protect Our Water – POW – in Siskiyou County, California
Jun 17, 2012
PNP comment: We in Siskiyou are watching our skies for drones hired by the State Dept. of Fish and Game to spy on farmers and ranchers. — Editor Liz Bowen
Published: Friday, Jun. 15, 2012 – 12:21 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Jun. 17, 2012 – 7:21 am
TUCSON, Ariz. – An aerial drone, zooming somewhere out of sight high above the cooling scrubland, first spotted the group of nearly two dozen migrants.
Snaking through the Sonoran Desert on a warm, moonless night last month, the would-be immigrants traversed the rugged foothills southwest of Tucson, a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
It had been a relatively quiet shift in that area for U.S. Border Patrol agents, who paused to chat in their passing green-and-white SUVs as dusk crept closer. But just after 10 p.m. agents perked up, their radios crackling with activity.
A fixed-wing Cessna took over from the Predator B unmanned plane and from overhead the pilot helped direct agents toward the migrants, who wove around ocotillo and brush.
A helicopter swooped in, its spotlight beaming over the hillside and rotors slicing the desert solitude as agents dropped down a ridge to chase the scattering group.
All told, a dozen men and women in olive uniforms converged. They rounded up eight of the migrants, walked them toward their gathered trucks and lined them up in a shallow drainage ditch along a washboard dirt road. A few of the migrants asked about the “camera in the sky” that had caught them.
A pilotless aircraft may have awed the failed migrants, but such success stories about U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s quarter-billion dollar drone program come in short supply, according to a Homeland Security Department inspector general’s report released Monday.
Grounded by wind and bad weather, costly maintenance and poor planning, the underachieving aircraft have flown only a fraction of the agency’s desired flight time from four bases in Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Dakota, the inspector general found.
In Arizona, where the agency keeps four drones, agents seemed pleasantly surprised that an unmanned craft had aided their efforts, though they had apprehended fewer than half of the detected migrants.
In its audit, however, the inspector general recommended that the agency stop buying the drones, manufactured by Poway-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, until officials can properly plan how to get the most out of the unmanned planes and budget for the program, which includes having enough equipment to perform their mission.
“CBP has not adequately planned to fund unmanned aircraft-related equipment,” such as ground control stations, ground support equipment, cameras and navigation systems, the inspector general report says. “As a result of CBP’s insufficient funding approach, future UAS [unmanned aerial systems] missions may have to be curtailed.”
Customs and Border Protection officials said they concurred with the inspector general’s recommendations and were committed to continuing to improve the drone program. In its written response to the inspector general’s report, the agency said it had no plans to add more drones beyond the 10 already in operation or on order “unless directed by a higher authority.”
The agency’s previously stated goal was to expand to 24 drones, which cost about $18.5 million for the Predator B and $20.5 million for the maritime version, known as the Guardian, to operate. Those costs include maintenance, surveillance technology and ground equipment.
In the past year the agency has added two unmanned aircraft to its underutilized fleet and expects to receive its 10th system by September. The agency can still purchase up to 24 drones, but authorization is based on the availability of funding.
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