Drones and Border Patrol: A Rapidly Expanding Mission 

Unmanned aerial vehicles are widely known for their controversial role in overseas military conflicts, most notably in Ukraine.  Their expanding role in mapping farms and public infrastructure and aiding public safety organizations and emergency responders is also increasingly acknowledged.  But there’s another zone of rising drone involvement that’s remained largely invisible:  the US-Mexico border.

“Small drones are really filling a critical niche between fixed surveillance systems and crewed aviation or manned aviation assets because of their range, because of their price point and the quick deploy ability,” says Quinn Palmer, who directs drone operations for the US Customs and Border Protection agency. “They can offer us surveillance over a much larger area on the border, like for search and rescue where we can cover broad swaths of territory very quickly.”

Quinn adds that drones are especially useful because they are quieter than manned aircraft, including fixed-wing planes and helicopters, and can operate covertly to detect illegal activity, even at night, using infrared thermal imaging cameras. Drones also have the ability to film from a high altitude to size up ground situations giving border patrol officers an important tactical advantage – the element of surprise – that also reduces the likelihood of casualties to officers and perpetrators alike.

According to Palmer, the CBP has grown its drone pilot crew to about 2,000 officers operating more than 330 systems – up from just half a dozen systems and 20 operators five years ago. Its current budget plan envisions the addition of 500 more drone operators in 2024 alone.

Support for drones has always been high at the field level, Palmer says, but now senior officials are aggressively promoting their use.  In 2023, CBP drones accounted for nearly 20% of the direct air support missions for border patrol ground agents on the ground.  Even more impressive:  48% of all border-crossing apprehensions and illegal drug seizures resulted from CBP drone flights.

“We apprehended about 42,000 folks crossing the border illegally. In fiscal 2020 through 2023, about 2,800 pounds of narcotics were seized, 95 vehicles seized and 13 weapons seized. That resulted from about 100,000 sorties about 50,000 hours flown,” Palmer says.

And the cost savings were enormous –  about $50 million in 2023 alone – money that can be used to support existing CBP missions and operational priorities, helping the agency extend its limited budget.

Palmer says the CBP’s drones are industry pioneers, because the agency uses them daily and intensively, which requires a commitment to maintenance and sustainability not found in industry or domestic law enforcement.  “We are using our equipment a lot compared to some of the other drone users in the United States. We’ve had industry partners say we never intended to fly this much. We’re like, ‘well, don’t sell it to us,” Palmer notes.

“I understand from our first responder colleagues and partners at the FAA we put more hours and systems in the air at any one time than anyone else in the nation, making CBP the most prolific single user of drone technology within the continental United States,” Palmer adds.

Due to their constant use, the CBP has implemented special maintenance and life cycle plans to ensure their drones’ longevity.  Batteries are rotated according to strict schedules and motor arms and propellers are replaced according to manufacturer specifications.  Still, drone innovation is occurring so quickly that Palmer expects the CBP to transition to new types of unmanned aircraft in a few years, outpacing the agency’s current sustainment plans.

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