Unmanned border flights suspended despite Bush call for more

Although President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have touted the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for border security, recent problems with the technology indicate that UAVs face major challenges in their conversion to a domestic surveillance role, according to officials and budget documents.

In a speech to the nation in May, Bush said UAVs will be used to prevent illegal crossings into the United States. But the Border Patrol has not flown a UAV along the southern border since its only Predator B drone was destroyed in a crash outside of Nogales, Ariz., in late April, an agency spokesman said.

Although Bush announced that National Guard troops are being deployed to the border, the Guard is not providing any UAV assets, the spokesman added. Instead, the Border Patrol is now accelerating its plan to procure a new Predator B from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The spokesman said the agency will spend $6.5 million to buy the UAV this summer.

But UAV problems have not escaped attention in Congress. In the report accompanying their version of the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill, House lawmakers noted the Predator crash and another, unspecified, mishap involving a UAV under development for the Coast Guard.

The report withholds $6.8 million for the Border Patrol to procure another UAV in fiscal 2007 until the agency reports findings of an investigation into the Predator crash, and implications of those findings for future UAV operations. The Coast Guard also was ordered to report on what caused the mishap of the developmental UAV and any implications that might have on the planned procurement of that drone.

The Predator crash is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, but preliminary results have revealed that it was caused by General Atomics operators, the Border Patrol spokesman said. General Atomics declined to comment for this article.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said the other mishap occurred in April by a UAV under development by Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. She added, however, that the Coast Guard still plans to test that UAV in fiscal 2007 and begin procuring it in fiscal 2009.

Nonetheless, industry is heeding the threat posed by the House report as it adapts UAVs from mainly military missions abroad to broader domestic operations under the control of federal civilian agencies.

"The message and the language is being taken seriously. There's no discounting the message that's being sent," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Davidson said he believes the support for using UAVs domestically is strong, but challenges are emerging as they become more mainstream.

Some challenges include ensuring that UAVs are safe to operate, working out civilian airspace use with the Federal Aviation Administration, and appeasing private aircraft operators who view UAVs as imposing on their travel routes. He added that the funding restrictions in the House report are a concern, but believes that industry will work through the Senate or in conference to maintain support for UAV development and procurement.

"UAVs have been in the consideration and planning phase of homeland security and border security for years now, and I think they're finally getting to the point of procuring these systems," Davidson said. "We look at this as just the very beginning."

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