FAA Approves Predator For Border Patrol

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The FAA Wednesday approved use of an unmanned Predator B aircraft out of Corpus Christi to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico along the 1,200 miles between El Paso and Brownsville, Texas. Flights could begin as early as Sept. 1. The flights add to Texas' aerial drone coverage approved in May that began June 1, over the West Texas and New Mexico border, and to those previously approved for the Arizona-Mexico border. The Predator B UAV has a 20-hour endurance and can provide real-time feeds from sensors, radars and cameras. A May 2008 congressional report noted that UAVs "suffer accident rates up to hundreds of times higher than manned aircraft," but U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sees value in their role. Napolitano doesn't feel the aircraft are useful everywhere, but that they "are part of the right mix of infrastructure, manpower, and technology that can improve border security." Even so, the latest approval did involve political wrangling that may have delayed an appointment at the FAA.

Predators have been flying in Arizona since 2006 and one has crashed there due to pilot error. The move is supported by Texas lawmakers hoping to suppress illegal entry into their state. Republican Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison had sent letters to both Napolitano and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in support of the drone program. And Cornyn had blocked a Senate confirmation vote on Michael Huerta, who would serve as deputy administrator under Babbitt at the FAA. Wednesday Cornyn issued a statement of his support for Huerta, after the Predator gained approval for U.S. Customs use in his home state of Texas.