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Predator turns Guardian

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

This January 2010 video provides a look at the new MQ-1 Predator drone’s capabilities and military uses. (CREDIT: Master Sgt. Dale Hanson; 147 Reconnaissance Wing/Public Affairs).

The Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection recently began testing an MQ-9 Predator B adapted for maritime surveillance 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.

The Coast Guard took possession of the first Guardian - the unarmed version of the Predator B - last December at Palmdale, Calif.

Sophisticated electronics

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. Reported cost of the drone is about $13.5 million.

Unlike the military version, the Guardian carries no armament but 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.

Ground control

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 Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vajda, the Coast Guard's unmanned surveillance aircraft manager. "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.

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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, and 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.

Future potential

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.

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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."

Read more about this in the May issue of Soundings.

Stories in this issue:

Not a plastic show
A 26-foot backyard-built beauty
Choosing a center console
Predator turns Guardian