DHS drones to monitor nearly entire northern border

The Homeland Security Department plans to fly sensor-mounted unmanned aircraft along a greater expanse of the 5,500-mile border with Canada to spot illegal activity, DHS officials told members of Congress on Friday.

Along the rugged northern border, remotely controlled planes -- variants of Pentagon drones -- are better than ground patrols or piloted aircraft at detecting drug smugglers and potential terrorists, according to federal officials. But the aircraft also pose a danger to commercial aviation.

With a so-called certification of authorization, or waiver, from the Federal Aviation Administration, "we now have the ability to operate them on the northern border between Spokane, Wash., and Minnesota," said John S. Beutlich, director of the northern region office of air and marine operations at Customs and Border Protection. Beutlich testified at a House Homeland Security subcommittee field hearing in Detroit.

FAA has formed an interagency committee to examine expanding drones' access to airspace across the country, the Government Accountability Office reported last month.

"We are actively working with the FAA to bridge that gap that is between the eastern edge of the current certificate of authorization area in Minnesota down to the area in New York," where DHS also has limited unmanned flight operations, Beutlich said. "This is a very heavily air-trafficked area when you consider the amount of commercial aviation. So we're working with the FAA, because of the safety concerns that we have to have for the general aviation airspace to make that happen."

Presently, two unmanned aircraft systems operate out of Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, according to DHS officials. Homeland Security expects to grow its nationwide fleet of seven systems to 24 by fiscal 2016, GAO auditors reported.

Lawmakers have said they are concerned about ongoing trafficking of high-potency narcotics along the Canadian border and the potential poisoning of the Great Lakes region's water supply by terrorists.

"Our drinking water system, it's open, it's vulnerable," Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., said at the hearing.

The northern border's thickly forested mountains, recreational trails that provide concealment, and small vessels that blend in with summer boating and winter ice fishing make it more difficult for ground patrols to monitor than the southern border.

The benefits of unmanned flights over piloted aircraft include better coverage, more precise imagery and longer mission durations, according to GAO. Predator systems can fly up to 30 hours because they do not have to land to change pilots. But remotely operated vehicles are not as good at seeing and avoiding other aircraft, the auditors noted.