EXCLUSIVE: Small unmanned aircraft give agents best possible vantage point on the border

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2,500 migrants, 2,600 pounds of drugs, guns found through remote-controlled aircraft

EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — Small unmanned aircraft systems are helping agents track more undocumented immigrants, a division chief with the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector told Border Report on Friday.

John Morris, the division chief of law enforcement programs, said the SUAS, new remote-controlled aerial technology helped agents locate 62 individuals hiding in a field of sugar cane field on Thursday. The drone-like aerial surveillance devices, with their infrared cameras, detected a group that otherwise would’ve gone unseen in the 7-foot-tall sugar cane stalks.

Speaking with Border Report on Friday at the sector headquarters, Morris said because the technology helps agents safely secure an area, the sector in Fiscal 2021 plans to add more unmanned aircraft equipment and train more agents to operate them.

John Morris, U.S. Border Patrol division chief of law enforcement programs for the Rio Grande Valley Sector, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, discusses the capture of 62 migrants using small unmanned aircraft systems. He is seen at the sector headquarters in Edinburg, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“This is one perfect example of our SUAS program is fitting in very nicely with our other assets,” Morris said. “Once we put all that technology together we actually found a total of 62 people hiding in there that we’d not have known about if we hadn’t brought the SUAS.”

Morris said agents initially spotted only four people who had crossed into the U.S. illegally “and were working their way in” before dawn. But agents arrested 40 Mexicans, eight Hondurans, four Guatemalans, two Nicaraguans, and seven Salvadorans in that field.

“Thick brush, crops, any pace they can go to hide, they will. And, obviously, having something that’s up high that can look down is a huge help to us,” Morris said.

Having something that’s up high that can look down is a huge help to us.”

John Morris, U.S. Border Patrol

In September 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it was starting a pilot program using these small unmanned aircraft in three sectors including the Rio Grande Valley; Tucson, Arizona, and Swanton, Vermont, on the Canadian border.

Lockheed Martin produces the igloo version of the small unmanned aircraft system, which is specially outfitted and used by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley Sector (Courtesy Photo).

“We anticipate the SUAS program to be a valuable tool for Border Patrol’s highly trained law enforcement personnel in securing our borders and helping identify and intercept illicit activity along U.S. borders,” said Carla Provost, then-Acting Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. 

Morris said the program proved much more successful than they imagined, and they formally began the program full-time on March 1. Since then, it has led to the apprehension of 2,500 migrants and seizure of 2,600 pounds of marijuana, he said.

“It is taxpayer’s money well spent that helps us do our job and helps keep my agents stay safer and also helps increase the safety of the people we’re looking for or trying to apprehend,” Morris said. “Now we have some type of eyes-on of whatever it is my agents are about to walk into. It could be firearms, it could be narcotics.”

More smugglers carrying guns

Lately, Rio Grande Valley Sector agents have been encountering more undocumented immigrants carrying guns, which they said was uncommon just a couple years ago. So far this year, Border Patrol agents have confiscated 138 guns, most of which are found on those who are smuggling humans or drugs.

Morris said having the extra set of eyes overhead enables his department to analyze a situation and determine whether individuals are carrying dangerous weapons or whether agents need to bring in reinforcements before they enter an area. It also helps them to distance themselves during this coronavirus pandemic.

A remote-controlled aircraft recently helped them to spot a person who had died and whose family was looking for them, Morris said.

These devices can hover at ground level or fly up to 400 feet high. They are monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration, and all operators must be licensed. Each device requires two agents to operate and can be deployed in just two minutes. They can also be launched from the back of a pickup or SUV. The relatively quiet devices also allow agents to gather intel from remote locations, like right on the river banks or in deep trenches.

There are two basic types of SUAS devices: one is a fixed-wing, which looks like a miniature airplane that must be launched by hand; the other is a quad-copter-platform, which looks like a mini-helicopter, and like a helicopter, can launch straight up from the ground and maneuver in multiple directions. The devices weigh about 10 pounds and can be deployed in two minutes.

This surveillance technology works in tandem with other technology, such as mobile surveillance towers, and Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), tethered remote-controlled blimps that hover high above fixed locations throughout South Texas, which have come under criticism due to the expensive operating costs.

The small unmanned aircraft systems that the RGV Sector currently is using include the Indigo quad-copter model produced by Lockheed Martin. All are equipped with infrared cameras “to see either during the day or during the night,” Morris said.

He is careful not to disclose how many devices they operate or where so smugglers cannot track them, but he said they also help other local law enforcement if they need the extra set of eyes.

“If we can catch closer to the river, it makes it safer for the community,” Morris said. “That’s less exposure to the elements, less abuse by the smugglers. It has so many benefits.”

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