Texas politicians may soon reap the rewards of their political pressure on the federal government, which may result in the delivery of unmanned aircraft to be used as surveillance over the Mexico border as early as this autumn.
US Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) stated on Monday that conversations he has had with officials from the US Customs and Border Protection’s office of air and marine operations agreed with the delivery timetable, according to a report in today's Austin American Statesman.
Use of the surveillance planes, commonly referred to as predator drones, is subject to Federal Aviation Administration approval before being allowed to fly over Texas.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the administration is “working as quickly as we can on this.”
Primary concern with the FAA is Texas’ heavy air traffic, both commercial and private, according to Cuellar.
Unmanned aircraft in Texas skies, if approved, would increase the US government’s border control efforts, which includes several unmanned aircraft already in service, 20,000 Border Patrol agents, 41 mobile surveillance systems, and about 650 miles of border fencing, according to Customs and Border Protection.
The surveillance plane, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and officially named the Predator B, can spot illegal border activity and sends real-time images to border officials.
Cuellar and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn and Texas Governor Rick Perry have all been involved for years in trying to bring the drones to Texas.
Cornyn, Hutchison and Perry are all Republicans leading the charge for the drones.
Perry has been calling for the drones since 2005, and recently said: “Washington needs to quit fiddling while the border region of America burns.”
Cornyn last week accused the FAA’s pace as “foot-dragging.”
Cuellar leads the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism and has asked the FAA to make Texas’ request a priority.
He invited Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to his office for a May 20 meeting to ensure an agreement is reached.
"My interest in this is to get this done as quickly as possible," Cuellar said.
The drone to be used in Texas is still under construction, and if not completed by the time of FAA approval, one will be borrowed from an undisclosed location, Cuellar said.
Naval Air Station-Corpus Christi has been identified as home for the Texas-based Predator.
States already employing the use of predator drones include Arizona, with three; North Dakota, with two; and Florida, which has one.
The Texas drone will be used for fighting drug trafficking, human smuggling and the violent Mexican drug cartels.
Costs for one unmanned aircraft is $10 to $12 million, according to General Atomics spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz.
Competition for the drones is fierce, as the US military leads the way and has about 7,000 of the unmanned aircraft in its inventory, acquiring them since 2003. They are used in overseas wars for surveillance and combat missions.
According to Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, popularity for the unmanned aircraft happened “in a bureaucratic blink of an eye.”
The military is enthusiastic to add more drones to its arsenal. “Basically, the Air Force is buying them as fast as they can,” he added.
Government discussions have already taken place regarding use of the drones’ high-resolution cameras on to Mexico for tracking drug cartel movements.
According to Cuellar, the cameras can read content on a bottle of water from 19,000 feet. He added there are sovereignty issues with Mexico that must be addressed before advancing the concept of using the drones on Mexico.