HOULTON, Maine — Officials with the Department of Homeland Security told members of Congress late last week that they plan to fly sensor-mounted unmanned aircraft along a greater expanse of the 5,500-mile border with Canada to spot illegal activity.
Even though the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are not yet patrolling in Maine, the announcement has the Congressional delegation watching the situation to see what the move could mean for the state.
Remotely controlled planes — variants of Pentagon drones — are better than ground patrols or piloted aircraft at detecting drug smugglers and potential terrorists, according to federal officials. But concerns about potential danger to commercial aviation have caused some to take a second look at the idea of unmanned aircraft patrolling border regions.
According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the Federal Aviation Administration has formed an interagency committee to examine expanding drones’ access to airspace across the country. Officials with the FAA have expressed reservations about UAVs in national airspace, particularly due to concerns over drones’ ability to detect, sense and avoid manned aircraft.
John Beutlich, director of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection northern region office of air and marine, testified before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and communications on Oct. 28. During the hearing, CBP officials said the department currently flies UAVs along the border between Spokane, Wash., and Minnesota, and in “a small area” around Syracuse, New York.
A GAO report issued in September noted that DHS has at least seven UAVs and plans to expand that number to 24 by fiscal 2016, including 11 on the southwest border.
The GAO pointed out that UAVs have benefits over piloted aircraft, including offering better coverage, more precise imagery and longer mission durations. Because they do not have to land to change pilots, predator systems can fly up to 30 hours. Auditors also pointed out that remotely operated vehicles are not as good at seeing and avoiding other aircraft.
Congressman Mike Michaud said the country has to secure its borders, and he has “long supported increased resources to do it.”
Still, he felt it was imperative that government agencies work closely to ensure safety for everyone.
“When it comes to this initiative, it’s critical that the Department of Homeland Security works very closely with the FAA to ensure it’s safe and doesn’t pose a threat to the flying public,” said Michaud. “If it can be done safely, it makes sense to expand the use of this new technology to increase our national security.”
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe agreed that protecting the northern border was vital, and she said that it was crucial that the swath of land “not become a weak link in our national defense.”
“I have long supported the deployment of modern technology to assist border agents and I will continue to consult with federal, state and local officials to ensure Maine has the requisite resources to secure the border and prevent terrorists and other dangerous individuals from entering our country,” Snowe said in a written statement.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins pointed out that CBP maintains an “active presence” with aircraft in northern Maine from its Houlton base of operations.
“We must continue to analyze the right mix of resources to deploy along the border — particularly with today’s tight fiscal constraints — to ensure that the most effective use of personnel and technology, and the best international, state and local agency partnerships are in place to secure our borders,” said Collins. The senator said that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have “close relationships” with Canadian border agencies, and they have worked together to promote coordinated approaches to border protection.
“While the deployment of technology is important, such relationships are key to our security,” said Collins. “In February, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper outlined a plan for the two governments to work cooperatively to establish a security vision that will foster and support economic development and security for both countries.”
Since its inception, CBP has flown more than 11,500 unmanned aircraft system hours supporting border security operations and disaster relief and emergency response, including various state governments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
News of the potential for expanding the presence of UAVs came as Snowe and Collins joined a number of their colleagues in the Senate on Friday in opposing a new directive restricting Border Patrol searches along the northern border.
In a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the senators called on the administration to rescind any policy or directive that “reduces the screening performed along the northern border” and to release a copy of all related directives. According to press reports, the Border Patrol was directed to stop its routine searches of buses, trains, and other vehicles along the border region.
“Such a directive to the field not only would pose an increased national security threat, but would also encourage an increase in the flow of undocumented individuals, weapons and drugs entering our country,” the senators wrote in the letter to Napolitano.
“This administration has long touted a strengthened border, but doing away with routine searches of people and goods would indicate a willingness to gamble with the public’s safety,” they continued. “News of the lessened security will only entice potential terrorists, drug smugglers, and illegal immigrants to attempt to enter the country through the northern border. The American people must be reassured that our borders remain secure and routine searches will continue.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.