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DHS expands drone flights on Mexico border

The Homeland Security Department expanded the use of unmanned drones along the U.S.-Mexico border this week, flying for the first time this sort of advanced technology in west Texas.

The Predator B unmanned aerial vehicle is providing support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to help interdict drug smugglers and detect people trying to enter the United States illegally, key lawmakers said.

Texas lawmakers have been clamoring for years to have an unmanned drone assist in border security operations, but the move had been delayed by bureaucratic wrangling between DHS and the Federal Aviation Administration. Drone flights along the Southwest border had been limited to regions in Arizona and New Mexico.

But several Texas lawmakers ramped up their efforts in recent weeks to get the FAA to approve flights in their state. And the FAA signed off at the end of May on allowing drone operations over the western region of the Texas-Mexico border.

"The beginning of UAV flights over the west Texas portion of our border with Mexico marks an important advancement for border security in our state," said Senate Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "High-tech tools have been spread thin among the Southwest border states for too long. We are working hard to make round-the-clock aerial surveillance the standard for all 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, and I hope this development is the first of many steps to bring our border detection and security efforts into the 21st century."

House Homeland Security Border Subcommittee Chairman Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, also helped broker the agreement between DHS and FAA.

"By putting eyes in the sky along the Rio Grande, we will gather real-time intelligence on the ground to augment the good work of federal, state and local law enforcement on the border," he said. "I applaud CBP's initiative to further develop the UAV program in Texas and I look forward to FAA's certification of flight for the remainder of the Texas-Mexico border this summer."

Customs and Border Protection now operates five Predator B drones, which have flown more than 1,500 hours and contributed to the seizure of more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana and the apprehension of more than 4,000 illegal immigrants, according to the agency.

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