Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may help solve the intractable problems connected with securing the southern border of the United States.

At 2,062 miles long, the border separating the United States and Mexico is only half the length of the U.S.-Canadian border. Yet the southern border requires 10 times the human resources as the northern border. About 1,000 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents patrol the 4,121-mile northern border, while 10,408 agents watch in the south. In addition, video cameras, ground sensors, physical barriers, land vehicles and manned aircraft are required to watch the southern border.

Despite the massive commitment of agents and technology in the south, illegal crossings and drug smuggling activities remain rampant. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, officials have also worried that the southern border may offer access to terrorists.

In June, a pilot program designed to strengthen security along the southern border moved into its operational phase. Called the Arizona Border Control Initiative (ABCI), the program operates out of the Thunder Mountain Evaluation Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. “We've put together a program with UAVs that look for illegal entries into the U.S.,” says Stacy Wright, director of the Thunder Mountain Evaluation Center. “The UAVs also look for strange activities that might, for example, suggest drug smuggling.”

Officials hope that the remotely-piloted drones equipped with imaging technology will serve as an effective force multiplier and facilitate more efficient deployments of patrolling officers.

Fort Worth, Texas-based EFW Inc., a subsidiary of Elbit Systems Ltd., Haifa, Israel, has supplied two Hermes 450 UAVs to the ABCI project. Designed to supplement piloted aircraft and ground-based surveillance operations, the un-piloted Hermes planes use electro-optic sensors and communications technology to provide day and night imagery on the ground.

New Technology Management Inc. (NTMI), Reston, Va., provides logistical support for the program. According to project manager Douglas Murray, NTMI handles airstrip tasks related to fueling, takeoff and landing. In addition, NTMI builds and maintains the relay systems that transmit and digitally record images.

According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report for Congress, UAVs have wide appeal in numerous government undertakings. The military has used UAVs since the war in Vietnam to provide real-time reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, search and rescue, and battle damage assessments.

As a border control technology, the CRS report suggests that UAVs may improve surveillance along remote stretches of U.S. borders. The electro-optical sensors carried by the drones have advanced to the point of being able to identify objects the size of a milk carton from altitudes of 60,000 feet. By collecting and transmitting images to operators on the ground, UAVs can help CBP mount swift, yet well-informed, responses to unauthorized activities around the border.

The CRS report also notes the UAVs extend the airtime and range of airborne surveillance.

Right now, UAVs also cost less than piloted aircraft. According to CRS, costs for experimental border control UAVs run to about $4.5 million. By contrast, the piloted aircraft currently used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cost $36 million.

While generally optimistic about the capabilities of UAVs for border patrol, the CRS report notes several problems. Accident rates about 100 times higher than piloted aircraft tend to compromise UAV performance. Cloudy conditions and high humidity can reduce the clarity of images sent from UAVs and may require the addition of a high-resolution radar system to ensure visual quality. UAVs will also have to be integrated into civilian airspace.

Addressing these problems may ultimately eliminate the cost benefit of UAVs.