Effectively monitoring activity along a 2,000-mile international boundary is no easy task. For decades, various US government agencies have used different types of systems – from human to radar to completely invisible – to detect illegal border crossings and facilitate interdiction of unauthorized traffic by federal agents. Arguably, the most valuable of these systems is the aerial platform for the sheer volume of data it can collect in a short amount of time. However, budget and management challenges have raised some doubts about the utility of aerial surveillance systems along the Southwest border, as well as the future of systems in the research and development phase.
A three-pronged approach
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its subordinate agency, US Border Patrol utilize three main aerial surveillance platforms along the US-Mexico land border. The first and most frequently used is CBP’s fleet of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which plays multiple roles on any given day. Border Patrol agents rely heavily on aerial support for the interdiction of drug smugglers and illegal border crossers on foot, as well as to carry out their critical searchand-rescue mission. A second platform being used at various border locations is the aerostat, more formally known as the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS). These large unmanned blimps of various sizes are loaded with a range of advanced surveillance technology.
The third major aerial system CBP employs – and perhaps the most controversial –is the agency’s fleet of Predator B unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also commonly referred to as drones. As of December 2014, CBP’s fleet consisted of 10 UAVs: five configured for land use, two for maritime use (the Guardian model) and three that were dual-purpose. The Predator Bs are usually the first aerial platform to experiment with cutting-edge surveillance technology because they can cover the largest amount of territory for the longest period of time. As such, in March 2012, CBP loaded one of their UAVs with a Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER) system, which was originally designed for the war in Afghanistan.