What the Heck Is Homeland Security Doing With $180 Million in Drones Mostly Sitting Around?

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The way the Border Patrol created its drone-surveillance program practically guaranteed ad-hoc mission creep.

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A few years ago, the Border Patrol started buying unarmed Predator drones. By the end of 2011, they had 10 of these $18 million machines, and very little idea of what exactly they wanted to do with them.

That's my takeaway from a new report released by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. The drones only flew 37 percent as often as they were supposed to, logging 3,909 hours in the air in a 12-month period that should have seen them in the air for more than 10,000 hours.

One big problem, according to the report, is that there weren't enough ground stations and support. This is like signing an expensive free-agent running back but forgetting you need offensive linemen. Drones are sexy! The ground control stations that run the drones, not so much.

In essence, Border Patrol has a management problem, the inspector says:


[Customs and Border Patrol] had not adequately planned resources needed to support its current unmanned aircraft inventory... This approach places CBP at risk of having invested substantial resources in a program that underutilizes resources and limits its ability to achieve Office of Air and Marine mission goals. CBP needs to improve planning of its unmanned aircraft system program to address its level of operation, program funding, and resource requirements, along with stakeholder needs.

This is a problem for their management, but I see a bigger problem embedded in how CBP went about its drone purchasing. In buying more drones than they knew how to fly or had a need for, they nearly guaranteed that there would be mission creep. I mean, take a look at the various kinds of missions they've flown:

    • Provided NOAA with videos of dams, bridges, levees, and riverbeds where flooding occurred or was threatened;
    • Provided FEMA with video/radar images of flooding;
    • Provided surveillance over a suspected smuggler's tunnel, which yielded information that, according to an ICE representative, would have required many cars and agents to obtain;
    • Provided radar mapping, or overlying radar images taken a few days apart, to show changes in location of flooding, allowing the National Guard to deploy high-water vehicles and sandbags to where they were most needed;
    • Participated in joint efforts with the U.S. Army to leverage capabilities of unmanned aircraft and test new technology; and

Not that these are bad things, but not all of them have a ton to do with customs or border patrol. In fact, no process exists for how to organize requests from outside agencies, as the inspector noted:

CBP's planning has not adequately addressed coordination and support of stakeholders. Although CBP identified stakeholders and has flown missions on their behalf, it has not implemented a formal process for stakeholders to submit mission requests and has not implemented a formal procedure to determine how mission requests are prioritized. It also does not have agreements with exterior stakeholders for reimbursement of mission costs.

So, to sum it up, Border Patrol bought too many expensive surveillance drones for use within our country and then lent their services out to other agencies without any formal process for the submission of those requests. This seems to virtually guarantee that the drones will be used in ways that were not anticipated by the Congress that gave CBP the money to purchase these machines.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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