Spy in the sky keeps watch over US border

A child looks into Arizona from Mexico through the fence that stands along the border. Picture: Getty
A child looks into Arizona from Mexico through the fence that stands along the border. Picture: Getty
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It’s the spy in the sky that is changing how the US patrols its border with Mexico – with more than 10,000 flights in the past year alone.

Now authorities are looking to extend their fledgling “drone patrol” project to cover their lines with Canada too.

US government officials say they now patrol nearly half the Mexican border by drones alone.

The shift in operations takes away responsibilty in desolate, hard-to-reach stretches where there are no agents, camera towers, ground sensors or fences.

It reverses a decades-old approach that relied on boots on the ground and fences.

Since 2000, the number of Border Patrol agents on the 1,954-mile border area has more than doubled to surpass 18,000 and fencing has multiplied nine times to 700 miles. However, that could be about to change.

Under the new approach, Predator B drones sweep remote mountains, canyons and rivers with a high-resolution video camera and return within three days for another video in the same spot, according to officials.

The two videos are then overlaid for analysts who use sophisticated software to identify tiny changes. Some 92 per cent of drone missions so far have shown no change in terrain.

But, crucially, the others raised enough questions to dispatch agents to determine if someone had got away, sometimes by helicopter because the area is so remote. The agents look for any sign of human activity – footprints, broken twigs, rubbish – from clues supplied by the drones.


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The government has operated about 10,000 drone flights under the strategy, known internally as “change detection”, since it began in March 2013. The flights currently cover about 900 miles, much of it in Texas, and they are expected to expand to the Canadian border by the end of 2015.

The ultimate goal is to gather data which will inform where to assign agents, crucially where illegal activity is highest, according to R Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, which operates nine unmanned aircraft across the country.

“You have finite resources,” he said. “If you can look at some very rugged terrain [and] you can see there’s not traffic, whether it’s tyre tracks or clothing being abandoned or anything else, you want to deploy your resources to where you have a greater risk, a greater threat.”

If the video shows the terrain unchanged, Border Patrol chief Michael Fisher calls it “proving the negative” – showing there isn’t anything illegal happening there and therefore no need for agents and fences.

The strategy was launched without fanfare and expanded at a time when president Barack Obama is preparing to issue an executive order by the end of this year to reduce deportations and enhance border security.

Border missions fly out of Sierra Vista, home of the US army intelligence centre at Fort Huachuca, or Corpus Christi, Texas.

They patrol at altitudes between 19,000 and 28,000ft and between 25 miles and 60 miles of the border.

Privacy advocates have raised concerns about drones. However, Lothar Eckardt, the agency’s executive director of national air security operations, said law-abiding people shouldn’t worry and that cameras were unable to capture details such as licence plate numbers and faces on the ground.


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