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Homeland Security: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Border Surveillance

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Fri, 18/01/2013 - 17:09
Congress has expressed a great deal of interest in using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to surveil the United States’ international land border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) utilizes advanced technology to augment its USBP agents’ ability to patrol the border, including a fleet of six UAVs. This report examines the strengths and limitations of deploying UAVs along the borders and related issues for Congress. UAVs come with several costs and benefits. One potential benefit of UAVs is that they could fill a gap in current border surveillance by improving coverage along remote sections of the U.S. borders. Moreover, the range of UAVs is a significant asset when compared to border agents on patrol or stationary surveillance equipment. Yet, despite potential benefits of using UAVs for homeland security, various problems encountered in the past may hinder UAV implementation on the border. There are concerns regarding the high accident rates of UAVs, which have historically been multiple times higher than that of manned aircraft. Inclement weather conditions can also impinge on a UAV’s surveillance capability. Also, according to the CBP Inspector General, the costs of operating a UAV are more than double the costs of operating a manned aircraft. Recent attention has focused on the expanding area of operations for CBP-operated UAVs. On June 23, 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted a certificate of authorization requested by CBP, clearing the UAV flights along the Texas border and Gulf region. Other requests have reportedly been delayed due to safety concerns, some of which stem from previous incidents. Despite safety concerns, some policymakers continue to call for the increased domestic use of UAVs. The Supplemental Appropriations Bill of FY2010 (H.R. 4899) would include $32 million for the acquisition of two additional UAVs by CBP.
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US Congressional Research Service 2010
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