The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency is ramping up its use of fancy technology to monitor the nation's borders again -- this time by opening up Washington's airspace to two unmanned Predator drones.
The announcement comes as part of the Department of Homeland Security's six year effort to build the nation's largest fleet of domestic surveillance drones. The program carries a $250 million pricetag and has produced mixed results, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The planes that will patrol Washington state are no Tacocopters (drone helicopters used to deliver tacos in China). Rather the drones deployed in Washington will be 10,000-pound Predator-B unmanned aircraft with 950-mile coverage ranges that can stay in the air for up to 20 hours at a time, border patrol spokesperson Gina Gray told The Associated Press.
In the Republican primary, Rick Perry suggested that Predator drones should be used to patrol the Southern border, apparently unaware that the nation's border patrol agency was already doing just that in his own state.
"They have all the equipment, they’re obviously unarmed, they’ve got the downward-looking radar, they’ve got the ability to do night work and through clouds. Why not be flying those missions and using [that] real-time information to help our law-enforcement?” Perry said in August of last year. But the aircraft had already been in use to monitor the Texas, Mexico border for several years. Drones are also used to patrol border areas in Arizona, Florida, and North Dakota.
Critics of the federal initiative say Predator drones are not worth their expense to taxpayers.
"The border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly," they cost about $3,000 an hour to operate, and the amount of drugs seized in raids initiated by drone-supplied information was described as "not impressive" by the man who supervises the initiative, according to Brian Bennett's report for the LA Times.
CBP spokesperson Gina Gary told The Associated Press that the 9 unmanned border drones helped intercept 7,600 pounds of narcotics. But the 14 manned P-3 Orions also in the agency's fleet reportedly helped the agency intercept 148,000 pounds of cocaine alone, according to the LA Times.
Aside from the hefty price-tag, critics have also voiced concerns that drones imperil privacy and public safety.
The ACLU called drones "a large step closer to a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.” This week, the AP also reported that "the government worries they could collide with passenger planes or come crashing down to the ground." Such concerns have reportedly subsided as the technology becomes more widely adopted.
But proponents of the drone initiative say the program is still in the testing phase, and that the initiative will pay for itself down the road.
"It is not about the things we are doing today," Michael Kostelnik, who heads the office that supervises the aircraft, said to the LA Times. "It is about the things we might be able to do."