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Drone patrol: Unmanned craft find key role in U.S. border security

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Directing the Predator to its hangar
A member of the ground crew directed the Unmanned Aircraft System MQ9-Predator B toward its hangar February 19, 2015 at the Grand Forks Air Force Base near Grand Forks, N.D.
Bruce Crummy for MPR News

The unmanned aircraft flying over eastern North Dakota on a cold February morning isn't the kind you'd fly in your back yard.

The Predator is about the size of small private aircraft.

Brian Franke is one of two pilots sitting in a metal shipping container in the corner of a large noisy concrete room on the Grand Forks Air Force Base. In front of the pilots are a half dozen video screens, aircraft cockpit controls and a computer keyboard.

They're running a training mission for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department, scanning a highway for cars. They are learning how to track moving vehicles with the aircraft's camera. Two trainers hover nearby, offering advice and correction.

Max Raterman, director of air operations
Max Raterman, director of air operations.
Bruce Crummy for MPR News

"If you fly unmanned aircraft for CBP, you come here for training," said Max Raterman, Director of Air Operations in Grand Forks. The border patrol department has nine Predator drones in circulation, two of which are based out of Grand Forks. Franke will work on the United States-Mexico border when he completes his Predator flight training.

Raterman oversees 17 pilots — trained to fly helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and the Predator drone — at Customs and Border Protection's ground control station in Grand Forks.

Pilots in Grand Forks often fly drones that are in the air over Arizona or Texas.

Raterman says his team's missions on the country's southern border are a priority, while flights on the northern border usually happen "when they're not busy with other stuff."

The drone is mostly used to look for signs of illegal border crossings. The Predator carries radar that can track moving people or vehicles over a wide area and tell what direction they're moving.

Raterman points to grainy gray radar pictures from a second radar that can detect footprints or tire tracks. One image shows a radar sweep of an area along the border. An image of the same area from 48 hours later shows a clearly visible white path.

"And they can see that somebody crossed on foot. That's where those red arrows are," Raterman said. "That wasn't there before. So who that is and why they did it we can't tell you that. But at least you know to watch that area."

This information will be passed on to Border Patrol agents.

Customs agents tracked the drone.
Law Enforcement Interdiction Agents Christopher Bish, left and Brian Franke tracked the Predator's path.
Bruce Crummy for MPR News

The Predator also has a video camera, but Raterman says it can't read your license plate and it doesn't have facial recognition. And there are no weapons on the drones, although radar units look a lot like a missile hanging from the wing.

"When you demystify this stuff there's a great big collective yawn," he said. "The better story is 'they got a missile on there, or they got something that can tell your face.' There's no truth to it."

There are much higher quality cameras used, for example, on military drones, but Raterman says Customs and Border Protection doesn't use them.

In addition to training and border missions, the drones based in Grand Forks sometimes help state and local officials.

They've flown missions for sheriffs in North Dakota and Minnesota, the state department of public safety and the DNR. Predator drones also monitor flood water on the Red River using radar images to look for changing conditions like ice jams.

From their desks or in the field, state and local officials can access what the drone sees using what's called a Big Pipe account. It allows a sheriff or Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent to sign in and watch real-time video and radar images.

The aircraft has Federal Aviation Administration permission to fly anywhere within 100 miles of the northern border.

Ground crew moved the Predator B.
Grand Forks Air Force Base ground crew moved the Unmanned Aircraft System MQ9-Predator B to the hangar.
Bruce Crummy for MPR News

It's unclear how often they assist other agencies; a CBP official says there were a handful of cases in the past year.

Use of unmanned aircraft on the borders recently came under fire in a Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report that concluded the drone program wasn't effective and didn't provide a good return on investment because it didn't increase arrests, and didn't fly enough missions.

The man in charge of all Customs and Border Protection air operations disagrees.

Randolph D. Alles, assistant commissioner of CPB
Tex Alles, assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Bruce Crummy for MPR News

"The Predator is not going to be the end-all, be-all for border security. It's a piece of a larger system," said Assistant CBP Commissioner Tex Alles.

The drone's radar, he says, can sweep a large area of the border and direct a helicopter or agents on the ground to arrest people. "No other platform I have in air marine or CBP provides me with this kind of information about a big area of what's happening on the border," Alles said. "So I think it's very advantageous."

The drone program returned $66,000 per hour of flight time during 2013, the year examined by the inspector general, Alles added. "That year the Predator system was responsible for $341 million of contraband seizures — drugs, money, weapons."

Other reports have raised privacy concerns about drone use along the border. Are they gathering data on citizens?

Alles says privacy is a concern. But he says people often confuse those larger unmanned aircraft with small drones flying close to the ground. Alles said he doesn't have the same concerns about Predator drones flying at 19,000 feet.

"The Predator system is a bigger, high-altitude system and is not probably as ubiquitous as people think it is," he says. "It's not everywhere all the time."

Alles says CBP doesn't plan to add more unmanned aircraft, but they are adding new sensors, like improved radar to the existing fleet of nine drones.

It will probably be a couple of years before the radar that can identify people and vehicles will be used on the northern border. They also plan to make improvements like de-icing equipment and improved landing gear so the Predator is better able to fly in bad weather.