Rogue drone causes pause in operations


Jun. 17--Safety concerns with the first unmanned aerial drone to fly on a Texas-Mexico border security mission this month brought a temporary halt to all unmanned aircraft operations in order to further train personnel, The Brownsville Herald has learned.

The drone had been flying on June 1 from Arizona to the El Paso area. But the aircraft experienced a "communications loss link, which resulted in pilot deviation," U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre said Wednesday in a written statement to the Herald.

The complication led to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, in cooperation with CBP, to conduct a stand-down for additional training of CBP's Office of Air and Marine personnel, which began June 9 and lasted through Tuesday, June 15, Lemaitre confirmed.

Lemaitre did not provide additional information regarding possible altitude loss and other issues. He said that the unmanned aircraft landed without incident.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection is committed to maintaining the highest levels of public safety and has increased training for personnel to ensure safe unmanned aircraft operations," Lemaitre said.

"With the successful completion of the stand-down, flights have resumed in normal operating areas," Lemaitre added.

The drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, are tools that the federal government has unleashed in its fight against illegal immigration, drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and terrorism in its north and southern borders.

According to the CBP's Office of Air and Marine, the department currently operates five Predator B unmanned aircraft; three are stationed at Sierra Vista, Ariz. and two at Grand Forks, N.D.

FAA is considering a request to allow unmanned aerial flights from El Paso to Brownsville, and a decision is expected by late August.

CBP notes on its website that the Predator Bs have flown more than 1,500 flight hours in support of border security missions and contributed to the seizure of more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana and the apprehension of more than 4,000 undocumented immigrants.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's office did not respond to a request for comment surrounding the June 1 flight or possible risks it might have posed and instead referred questions to U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, TX-28, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counter Terrorism, has been at the forefront of urging FAA's approval for the deployment of drones in Texas.

On June 2, Cuellar issued a press release noting that the June 1 flight from Arizona to New Mexico and to the El Paso area, "marks the beginning of a critically important new means for providing homeland security in Texas," and again urged FAA to approve flights along the remainder of the Texas-Mexico border.

On Wednesday, Cuellar's spokeswoman Ashley Patterson said that the recent safety review for the unmanned aerial vehicle program had been voluntarily conducted by CBP with FAA's cooperation.

"Upon its successful completion, UAV flights have resumed in their normal operating areas along the northern and southern borders," she said in a written statement.

Patterson added that Cuellar remains committed to the program and dedicated to ensuring the safety of the program.

"Congressman Cuellar is regularly informed of issues related to border security. DHS is the entity ultimately responsible for deciding if and when operational matters relative to homeland security can be publicly disclosed," she added.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, TX-16, did not respond to a request for comment; neither did El Paso County officials.

Lemaitre said that, "over the past 16 months, CBP has deployed unprecedented manpower, technology and infrastructure to enhance security along the southwest border."

"The recent pause in unmanned aircraft operations had no impact to our border security operations," he added.