Agencies see homeland security role for surveillance drones

An increasing number of federal agencies are pursuing plans to use pilotless surveillance aircraft to help patrol the Mexican and Canadian borders, protect the nation's major oil and gas pipelines and aid in other homeland security missions.

Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said in an interview Tuesday that he will ask President Bush to explore the possible deployment of such aircraft, known as unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, by civilian agencies responsible for homeland security.

The drones would be similar to those used in high-profile missions by the CIA and U.S. military to target suspected Taliban and al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. But unlike many of the UAVs deployed overseas, such as the one that fired a missile at a carload of suspected terrorists in Yemen last month, the drones flown for homeland security operations would not be armed with weapons, only cameras or sensors, several federal officials said.

"I think it would be very important that the president initiate a study on the future use of UAVs by elements of the federal government other than the military," Warner said.

Warner said he believes UAVs could be an effective means of watching the home front in the war on terror. But he acknowledged that "they're quite intrusive." Warner said concerns about individual privacy, such as those raised when the Pentagon offered to do aerial surveillance during the recent hunt for the Washington-area snipers, are "an open issue and should be addressed by the [president's] study."

Among the agencies now committed to deploying UAVs are the Coast Guard and Border Patrol, both of which are moving to the Homeland Security Department. Other non-Defense Department agencies, such as the Transportation Department, are in the early stages of exploring possible security roles for drones. Meanwhile, the Energy Department, which set up a UAV program in 1993 to study clouds and climate change, has been developing high-altitude instruments to measure radiation in the atmosphere.

Despite an industry rumor that the FBI is looking into UAVs at its Quantico, Va. facilities, an agency spokesman said there is no such activity.

Drones, which are controlled remotely on the ground, can hover over an area for hours, sometimes days, to provide accurate and timely information. In the war on terror, the military and CIA have used UAVs for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, bomb damage assessment and telecommunication relays over hostile areas, without risking the lives of aircrews. San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. has supplied the Predator, which can operate up to 25,000 feet, compared to the 40,000-foot ceiling of commercial airplanes. Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles has produced the still-experimental Global Hawk, which can fly up to 66,000 feet and rival the venerable U-2 spy plane in reconnaissance capabilities.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, interest in UAVs among federal agencies has swelled, industry sources said. "There's been a lot more activity over the last couple of months," said one manufacturing executive who asked not to be named. "It's been really intense. We're doing things now that we wouldn't have been doing a year ago."

"These [UAVs] are hot," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International. Marketers for Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other top U.S. defense firms have been busy talking to agencies about civilian applications of UAV technology, he said.

Indeed, Boeing, which received a defense contract earlier this year to develop a fuel-cell propulsion system for UAVs, hopes to sell to civilian agencies high-endurance drones that can fly for weeks instead of days, said Chick Ramey, a company spokesman. Lockheed Martin has been shopping around its small Sentry Owl, which the Air Force has used to provide surveillance at air bases, as a tool for property monitoring and pipeline security.

At the Transportation Department, Ellen Engleman, administrator for Research and Special Programs, said she will host a conference on UAVs and transportation security early next year. Her agency began working with NASA nearly four years ago to develop high-altitude sensors, at first to monitor traffic flow and help highway planners but also now to follow trucks carrying hazardous cargo and watch for "irregular activity" at major pipelines, according to her spokesman, James Mitchell.

"UAVs could be very valuable to enhancing security, as long as you can get a real or near-real time look at the pipes with some sensors that can detect irregular activity," Mitchell said. At Engleman's direction last April, the agency solicited research proposals for using UAVs to monitor pipelines but so far has failed to find an acceptable submission, he said.

Last month, the Coast Guard's prime contractor for its $17 billion Deepwater modernization program began formal contract talks with Bell Helicopter Textron to buy the first eight Eagle Eye UAVs, part of a fleet of 69 high-speed drones that would take off vertically from the decks of the service's planned new National Security Cutters. Beginning in 2006, these drones would be used to locate drug runners, illegal migrants or boaters in distress, a Coast Guard spokesman said. Plans also call for the deployment by 2016 of seven Global Hawks for high-altitude maritime surveillance missions.

In August, the Border Patrol, aided by three Pioneer UAVs operated by the U.S. Marines, nabbed about 100 pounds of high-grade marijuana and several people who were trying to smuggle it across the Canadian border into Idaho. Mario Villareal, a Border Patrol spokesman, said an interagency surveillance operation was launched in July after the Forest Service detected illegal entries along the Idaho border. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who observed the Border Patrol operation, asserted recently that the smugglers had been sending their drug proceeds "back to Muslim groups in Canada, and the money is used to finance terrorist activities all over the world."

Since 1999, the Border Patrol and military services occasionally have teamed up for UAV surveillance demonstrations along the Mexican border near Laredo, Texas, according to industry officials. Villareal said his agency had no plans to buy its own surveillance drones, explaining that working with trained military UAV operators along both the southern and northern borders has proven to be effective. Asked if his agency expected to make greater use of UAVs, he replied: "I wouldn't rule it out."

Tancredo is delighted that military UAVs are supporting the Border Patrol's security mission. An outspoken advocate of using military muscle along the border, Tancredo declared, "We have the technology to aid in this. I saw it with my own eyes. It can work."

A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services research and development subcommittee, offered more conditional support, emphasizing that the technology must work and civilian agencies seeking to buy UAVs must use their own money, not the military's.

Besides money, regulatory and reliability hurdles must be overcome before UAVs can fly homeland security missions, market analysts said. The industry has been talking with the Federal Aviation Administration about simplifying the process for authorizing UAV flights in U.S. civilian airspace, but "it's going to take a while to get there," said Davidson, the trade group executive.

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