The unmanned aerial vehicle helping to keep an eye on Arizona’s border with Mexico is being grounded at the height of the season for illegal border crossings.
"It would be a good thing if we could continue on with it," said Andrea Zortman, spokeswoman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. "It’s definitely done a lot of good things."
The latest federal contract for a pilotless plane to patrol the border expires Jan. 30, and officials have no firm plans to send up replacements. The vehicle currently being flown, an RQ-5 Hunter made by Northrop Grumman Corp., has been a boon to Border Patrol agents since October, Zortman said.
The remote-controlled airplane can fly quietly at more than 100 mph for 10 to 12 hours at a time, scanning the ground below with hightech cameras that can see with both day- and night-vision.
"From 10,000 feet, you can tell if it’s a backpack a regular migrant carries, or if it’s a backpack full of drugs," Zortman said.
If agents watching the picture beamed from the plane see that smugglers of drugs or immigrants are carrying assault rifles, they can alert ground forces to prepare accordingly, she said.
The images are also taped and have aided in prosecutions of smugglers, she said.
"No longer do we have to hike 20 miles up in the mountains, because we know we have eyes on them and can watch them the whole way," Zortman said. "It’s used every day."
At a Tucson news conference last March, Department of Homeland Security officials announced that pilotless aircraft would be part of the new Arizona Border Control initiative designed to limit smuggling and watch out for terrorists. An Israeli-made Hermes unmanned vehicle was first deployed for the program between June 24 and Sept. 30, and it helped catch 965 illegal immigrants and confiscate 843 pounds of marijuana, Zortman said.
After Hermes came the $2 million Hunter program, which helped agents make 287 apprehensions of illegal immigrants and seize 1,900 pounds of marijuana, she said.
Congress appropriated $10 million for the program for its fiscal 2005 budget year, which began Oct. 1, said Mario Villarreal, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.
"There is money left over for continued use," he said. But, the program will be stopped to evaluate its effectiveness, he said.
A "refined requirement" for using the military aircraft as border enforcers will then be developed, and the government will put out a request to the private sector to provide a new unmanned vehicle program, he said.
"It’s undetermined when the program will start back up," Villarreal said. "I would say sometime this year."
January, February and March are typically the busiest months of the year for illegal border crossers, officials said.
Villarreal acknowledged the poor timing of the program’s hiatus.