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Spotlight on Surveillance

August 2005:
Unmanned Planes Offer New Opportunities for Clandestine Government Tracking



Past Spotlights

The federal government is spending an increasing amount of money on surveillance technology and programs at the expense of other projects. EPIC’s “Spotlight on Surveillance” project scrutinizes these surveillance programs.

This month’s Spotlight on Surveillance shines on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also called drones. “UAVs are defined as a powered aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry lethal or nonlethal payloads.”1 The different types of UAVs can range in cost from $350,000 to $4.5 million each. For Fiscal Year 2006, the Department of Homeland Security is budgeting $58 million for operation and maintenance of deep water assets, including funds for UAVs.2 The Homeland Security Appropriations Act provided $10 million for the use of UAVs in border security for Fiscal Year 2005.3

Eyes on Target  
The Coast Guard has bought 45 of Bell Helicopter's "Eagle Eye"
tilt-rotor UAVs and will begin using them in September.
Each Eagle Eye costs $5.5 million.

[click to view full PDF file]
Customs and Border Protection, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has tested UAVs along the Mexican border, and is considering using these surveillance planes permanently. The Coast Guard, also under the umbrella of Homeland Security, has bought 45 of Bell Helicopter’s “Eagle Eye” tilt-rotor UAVs and will begin rolling them out in September.4 Each Eagle Eye costs $5.5 million.5 UAVs were designed for use on the battlefield — the U.S. military has used them in reconnaissance missions in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some UAVs are equipped with weapons. Now technology designed for military operations could be used by the federal government for clandestine, aerial surveillance of the civilian U.S. population.

In October and November 2003, the Border Patrol tested the “Predator B” UAV.6 In late 2003 and during July 2004, the Coast Guard tested Predator B UAVs in Alaska.7 From June 26, 2004, to September 30, 2004, two “Hermes 450” UAVs scanned the Arizona-Mexico border.8 The cost of leasing, fueling and maintaining the two UAVs for the three-month test operation was $4 million.9 The Border Patrol is expected to conduct a second test of UAVs along the Arizona-Mexico border in September.10 The Department of Homeland Security also plans to test the UAVs along the Canadian border and in Puerto Rico.11

  Non-military applications of Hermes 450
Border and coast patrols are among the non-military
applications of the Hermes 450 UAV, according to its
maker Elbit Systems.

[click to view full PDF file]
In general, UAVs can be equipped with surveillance cameras with thermal and night-vision capabilities. “Electro-Optical (EO) sensors (cameras) can identify an object the size of a milk carton from an altitude of 60,000 feet.”12 UAVs can be equipped with radar systems to produce high-resolution imagery and track moving targets.13 These camera and radar systems allow a ground operator to receive precise and real-time imagery from the surveillance planes.14 Various UAVs can fly for 20-50 hours without refueling.15 The planes also can be equipped with targeted weapons systems.

The specific UAVs used by the Coast Guard and Border Patrol are: Eagle Eye, Hermes 450, and Predator B. Eagle Eye UAVs have wingspans of 14.2 feet, are 18.3 feet long, and 6.2 feet high.16 An Eagle Eye system, which includes two airplanes and one ground control station, requires two people to support it.17 The Hermes 450 is a single engine system with a wingspan of 34.5 feet, and can fly for 20 hours straight.18 The Predator B Mariner UAV has a wingspan of 86 feet and an endurance of more than 49 hours.19

Predator B  
The Predator B UAVs have been used for surveillance
in Arizona and Alaska by the Border Patrol and Coast

[click to view full PDF file]
UAVs are touted as being less expensive and safer than manned aircraft. However, the surveillance planes are prone to crashing, and are expensive to replace. “The current UAV accident rate (the rate at which the aircraft are lost or damaged) is 100 times that of manned aircraft.”20 Some accidents are caused by the fact that “multiple UAVs piloted in close proximity to each other have experienced interference and loss of control between the UAV and the remote pilot.”21 This raises concerns about the safety of opening up the national airspace, already crowded with commercial airplanes and helicopters, to surveillance craft originally designed for use by the military. Another problem is that UAV images can be distorted by inclement weather, cloudy conditions, high humidity, rough terrain and dense foliage.22

Beyond the problems with UAV technology, the usefulness of using such surveillance technology in border control operations has been questioned. In testimony about surveillance technology generally, including UAVs, the president of the National Border Patrol Council said at a House subcommittee hearing last year that “[s]ubstituting detection technology for staffing and equipment lawbreakers is unwise. While such technology can be useful … it cannot catch a single violator. Only trained people can accomplish that task.”23 Also, a report about UAVs prepared earlier this year for Congress warned that the surveillance planes’ effectiveness “may not be so significant when terrorists, like the September 11 hijackers, can and have entered the country through more easily accessible official ports of entry.”24

  Movie demonstrating Hermes 450
This movie from Elbit Systems demonstrates how the
Hermes 450 UAV can be controlled by a remote operator.
This increase in surveillance and monitoring systems has not helped the CBP's bottom line — apprehensions. In 2000, there were 1.6 million apprehensions.25 Every year since then, the number has steadily fallen to half that — in 2004, there were 800,000 apprehensions.26

The federal government’s redirection of military technology toward the civilian population is troubling. The use of UAVs gives the federal government a new capability to monitor citizens clandestinely, while the effectiveness of the expensive, crash-prone surveillance planes in border patrol operations has not been proved. The costs of these unmanned aerial vehicles outweigh the benefits.

1 Christopher Bolkcom, CRS Report for Congress RS21698: Homeland Security: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Border Surveillance, at 2 (Feb. 7, 2005), available at http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0805/rscb.pdf (hereinafter “UAV Report”).

2  Department of Homeland Security, Budget-in-Brief Fiscal Year 2006, at 51 (Feb. 7, 2005) available at http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0505/dhsb06.pdf.

3 P.L. No. 108-334 (2004).

4 Katie Fairbank, Pilotless aircraft seen as wave of the future, Dallas Morning News, June 14, 2005; Staff writer, Admiral: Tiltrotor Eagle Eye UAV slated for September flight, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, July 22, 2005.

5 Joe Pappalardo, Coast Guard's unmanned aircraft set for testing, National Defense, Feb. 1, 2005.

6 UAV Report, supra note 1 at 3. 

7 Arthur H. Rotstein, Technology aids Border Patrol, Ventura County Star, June 7, 2004 (hereinafter “Rotstein”); Press Release, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Mariner Demonstrator UAV Achieves Industry Milestones during Canadian Deployment (Sept. 7, 2004).

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 Claire Vitucci and Sharon McNary, Bill reopens immigration debate, Press-Enterprise, May 13, 2005.

11 Amanda Lee Myers, Drone Takes to Sky Above Arizona Desert, Associated Press, June 26, 2004.

12 UAV Report, supra note 1 at 3.

13 Id. at 5.

14 Id. at 3.

15 Id.; Rotstein, supra note 7.

16 Bell Helicopter, Eagle Eye Pocket Guide, at 14, 15 (June 2005) available at http://www.bellhelicopter.textron.com/en/aircraft/military/pdf/EagleEye_PG_05_web.pdf and http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0805/eagle.pdf.

17 Id. at 42.

18 Elbit Systems, Hermes 450 UAV System, available at http://www.elbitsystems.com/data/un_Hermes%20450.pdf and http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0805/herm.pdf.

19 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Predator B, available at http://www.uav.com/products/predator_b.html and http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0805/pred.pdf.

20 UAV Report, supra note 1 at 3.

21 Jason Blazakis, CRS Report for Congress RS21698: Border Security and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, at 6 (Jan. 2, 2004), available at http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0805/rsjb.pdf.

22 UAV Report, supra note 1 at 4.

23 Prepared statement of T.J. Bonner, National President, National Border Patrol Council, House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims, Oversight Hearing on “Funding for Immigration in the President's 2005 Budget” (Mar. 11, 2004), transcript available at http://judiciary.house.gov/media/pdfs/printers/108th/92120.PDF.

24 UAV Report, supra note 1 at 7.

25 Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol, America’s Shield Initiative Industry Day, at 18 (Aug. 5, 2004) available at http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/appreh.jpg.

26 Id.

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