It was the U.S. Army's interest in the Wright Flyer as a military system 111 years ago that helped touch off the modern aerospace and defense sector as we know it, and now it may be the Homeland Security Department's "interest" in unmanned aircraft for border security that could sweep in the era of domestic remotely piloted vehicles for all kinds of applications.
Thus far, a Lone Ranger, but partners are sure to come.
Yesterday DHS let known its Customs and Border Protection agency obtained approval from the FAA for a certificate of authorization that will allow CBP Predator B flights along the Texas border with Mexico, and throughout the Gulf Coast. CBP will base a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator B at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, Texas, "as soon as all necessary agreements and resources are finalized to sustain a permanent UAS presence there."
The news came as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made a speech asserting the Obama administration's stepped-up border security measures. Indeed, according to this Washington Post article, as killings have increased in Mexico, violent crime is down along the U.S. side of the border. At the same time, seizures of illegal weapons, drugs and cash have risen. But more can be done, she acknowledged.
And the Texas delegation in Washington wanted more done - ASAP. Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn had openly advocated for FAA permission of Predator flights in Texan skies for months. When FAA approval was slow in coming, Cornyn blocked Senate confirmation of Michael Huerta to be deputy director of the FAA. On Wednesday, after learning that the agency had given its approval for the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to operate in Texas, Cornyn said he would allow a vote on Huerta.
The debate about unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies, of course, is only growing. In the latest issue of Aviation Week's BCA magazine, David Esler has an encyclopedic report on the issue as it stands now. The Texan push for CBP Predators seems to me to be the first of many forced entries into domestic skies as needs and desires overwhelm apprehensions.
For now, CBP operates five Predator Bs. Three are assigned to the southwest border, operating from the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Two Predator Bs are assigned to the northern border, based in Grand Forks AFB, N.D. CBP and the Coast Guard also are testing a prototype maritime Predator B, known as Guardian.
Guardian was modified from a standard Predator B with structural, avionics, and communications enhancements, as well as the addition of a Raytheon SeaVue Marine Search Radar and an electrooptical/infrared sensor that is optimized for maritime operations, according to CBP.
The air and marine division of CBP is one of the largest non-military security forces of its kind in the world. The Coast Guard - the fifth, DHS-based U.S. armed service - has dreams of its own fleet of UAVs too, which means the paramilitary fleet of unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies likely will only increase, and sooner rather than later.