Border Patrol drones fly the skies for Minn. agencies

Gerald L Nino
Predator unmanned aircraft. (Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Minnesota agencies have used unmanned aircraft from the Border Patrol  for a variety of missions in the past three years. Information from the Department of Homeland Security, gathered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation lists 11 UAS missions flown at the request of Minnesota agencies in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The Border Patrol routinely patrols the northern border with unmanned Predator aircraft based in Grand Forks. Sometimes the photos or video gathered on those flights can be useful for purposes other than border security. The Predator aircraft can also fly specific missions to assist state or local agencies.

Eight of the 11 missions flown for Minnesota agencies were law enforcement related. Seven were listed as supporting the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigations. (That's actually the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension). One mission was flown for the Minnesota Drug Task Force.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety Information Officer Jill Oliveira said all eight of the missions were to search for marijuana growing operations. Oliveira said the agency won't discuss specific cases, but the "BCA has had success using this tool to locate marijuana grows."

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Three Predator missions supported  the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Two flights in December 2011 and January 2012 for the DNR's Fishery Division were used to collect images of Lake of the Woods to count fish houses on the ice as part of a project to gauge fishing pressure.

According to Area Fisheries Supervisor Phil Talmage, "the information provided turned out not to cover the scope of what we were looking for,"  so the idea was scrapped.

There was another flight for DNR Forestry in May of 2012 to test the use of drones for spotting wildfires.

Interestingly, the data provided by the Department of Homeland Security shows 14 missions flown for the Grand Forks SWAT team. But Grand Forks Police Lt. Mike Ferguson said he could only find a record of one drone flight tasked to the SWAT team. He said it's possible flights in support of other North Dakota agencies were mistakenly attributed to the Grand Forks SWAT team.

The records show seven UAS flights for North Dakota state law enforcement agencies.