Killer drones may soon save lives, too

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Unmanned Predator is being tested for search-and-rescue and anti-smuggling roles

Predator drones similar to those that attack terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan soon might be deployed for search-and-rescue and tracking drug and migrant smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

The pilotless Guardian - an unmanned version of the Predator B drone - is operated remotely from the ground.

The Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection began testing an MQ-9 Predator B adapted for maritime surveillance in March at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. If the remotely controlled aircraft performs well, it could become the workhorse of a new surveillance system for our land borders and coastal waters.

"An unmanned aircraft system is a significant and needed force multiplier that will help us counter threats like narcotics and migrant smuggling, terrorism and piracy in the vast expanses of the maritime domain," said Coast Guard commandant Adm. Thad Allen last December at Palmdale, Calif., where the two agencies took possession of the first Guardian, the unarmed version of the Predator B.

Measuring 36 feet with a wing span of 66 feet, a Predator B can fly more than 250 mph and at an altitude of 50,000 feet, according to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, of Poway, Calif., its builder. The aircraft has a range of 3,200 miles and can stay in the air without refueling for more than 30 hours.

General Atomics modified the Predator B - its second-generation Predator - for ocean surveillance, delivering it at a reported cost of about $13.5 million. Unlike the military version, the Guardian doesn't carry any armament, but it is equipped with an array of sophisticated electronics, including a Raytheon SeaVue radar for detecting small targets over wide ocean spaces, a heat-sensing electro-optical infrared video camera to identify objects on the water and, according to press reports, an AIS transponder for receiving traffic data from ships that identify who they are, where they are going and from where they've come.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen observes in the 'Control Trailer.'

"These things together make it better suited for over-water operations," says Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vajda, the Coast Guard's unmanned surveillance aircraft manager.

The drones are controlled remotely from the ground by a minimum of two people - one who directs the plane and one or more who operate its surveillance gear. For the Coast Guard, the Guardian's greatest strength is its long range. "I'm a helicopter pilot," says Vajda. "Ninety percent of search-and-rescue is the search." The unmanned aircraft can work the search patterns - the drudge work - leaving crews fresh to perform the rescue, the "harder, more dangerous part," he says.

Guardian's range also strengthens the Coast Guard's interdiction capabilities. An all-too-common scenario: "Just as a case is getting good and you've spotted the bad guys, you find out you're almost out of fuel," Vajda says. The mission's over. A Guardian delivers two to three times the staying power on-scene, he says.

The Border Patrol and Coast Guard are working together to develop the maritime Predator. Border Patrol already operates three non-maritime Predator Bs along the Mexican border out of Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and two more along the Canadian border from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. It says initially it plans to use the Guardians in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean - operating out of Cape Canaveral - to track drug boats and later expand coverage to the Great Lakes. By 2015, it hopes to have enough unmanned aircraft of both varieties to cover all U.S. borders.

At least one more Guardian is coming soon. "We're building another one to be delivered by year's end," says General Atomics spokesperson Kimberly Kasitz.

The Predator and Guardian both are land-based. The Coast Guard also is eyeing a ship-based drone, the Navy MQ-8 Fire Scout, a vertical takeoff unmanned helicopter built by Northrop Grumman. The Coast Guard wants the unmanned helicopters for its 418-foot National Security and proposed 357-foot Offshore Patrol cutters. The Fire Scouts would increase the ships' aerial surveillance capability from 18,000 to 58,000 square miles, according to a July 2009 Government Accounting Office report.

Domestic use of unmanned aircraft has caused some concern because the drones have a higher crash rate than manned aircraft. Cape Canaveral is a good base for testing the Guardian because its air space is cleared for unmanned aircraft, and it is close to the Gulf and Caribbean, where its help is most needed.

Customs and Border Protection credits its Predators along the northern and southern borders with helping seize 15,000 pounds of marijuana and round up 4,000 illegal aliens.

The Air Force says it is training more pilots to fly unmanned aircraft in response to a 300 percent increase in its unmanned fleet. Vajda foresees a day when unmanned aircraft could be on patrol along the nation's borders 24/7.

"It's certainly a possibility," he says. "I feel like this is really going to explode. ... The potential is there."

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.