Bor­der cops’ cam­era-tot­ing bal­loon tak­ing off

The Star Malaysia - - World -

SAN DIEGO: The US Bor­der Pa­trol is con­sid­er­ing a sur­veil­lance bal­loon that can be quickly moved to spot il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity, part of an ef­fort to see if more eyes in the sky trans­late to fewer il­le­gal cross­ings.

Agents in Texas re­cently fin­ished a 30-day trial of the cam­era-tot­ing, helium-filled bal­loon made by Drone Avi­a­tion Hold­ing Corp, a small startup that named for­mer Bor­der Pa­trol chief David Aguilar to its board of di­rec­tors in Jan­uary.

The three-year-old, money-los­ing com­pany gave Aguilar op­tions that may prove lu­cra­tive if it gets more or­ders for its pro­pri­etary model.

The trial comes as agents test hand-launched drones, which are rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive but ham­pered by short bat­tery life and weight lim­its. The Bor­der Pa­trol has also used six large teth­ered bal­loons in Texas since 2012, ac­quired from the De­fense De­part­ment.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has pledged to add 5,000 agents, but hir­ing has been slow. If drones and bal­loons are de­ployed more widely, fewer agents may be needed.

The new bal­loon – called Winch Aero­stat Small Plat­form, or WASP – drew the Bor­der Pa­trol’s in­ter­est largely to save money.

The com­pany says one costs US$800,000 (RM3.3mil) plus about US$350,000 (RM1.4mil) a year to op­er­ate, de­pend­ing on how of­ten it’s moved. By con­trast, op­er­at­ing the cur­rent fleet of six large bal­loons costs US$33mil (RM1.3bil) a year, ac­cord­ing to US Rep. Henry Cuel­lar, a Texas Demo­crat.

The Bor­der Pa­trol, in re­sponse to ques­tions said Thurs­day it was eval­u­at­ing re­sults of the trial.

The agency hadn’t pre­vi­ously dis­closed the trial, but AP learned de­tails from Aguilar, Cuel­lar and head of the agents’ union Brandon Judd.

Agents be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with the WASP on Aug 21 at the Bor­der Pa­trol’s Rio Grande City sta­tion and with a mo­bile re­sponse team in Rio Grande Val­ley, the busiest cor­ri­dor for il­le­gal cross­ings.

Cuel­lar, who was briefed on the trial dur­ing a visit last month, said the agency’s top of­fi­cial in the re­gion was “very com­pli­men­tary” of the tech­nol­ogy.

The bal­loons can be as­sem­bled and de­ployed by two or three agents in less than an hour and re­main aloft while teth­ered to a mov­ing ve­hi­cle.

The large bal­loons, con­trolled re­motely from trail­ers, can take days to assem­ble, re­quire more than twice the crew and are al­most never moved.

The WASP also may per­form bet­ter in strong winds, which Aguilar said was ev­i­dent as Hur­ri­cane Har­vey hit nearby. Drone Avi­a­tion says it can handle gusts up to 72kph.

On the flip side, the bal­loons can’t carry as much equip­ment. One US of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the tech­nol­ogy said their cam­eras scanned 8km.

The larger mod­els, with their heav­ier gear, can peer about 32km.

The of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the Bor­der Pa­trol hadn’t pub­licly dis­cussed the bal­loons.

The of­fi­cial said a de­ci­sion was ex­pected within months.

Aguilar ap­pears ideally suited to make the com­pany’s case. He was Bor­der Pa­trol chief from 2005 to 2010 and re­tired from gov­ern­ment in 2013 af­ter stints as deputy and act­ing com­mis­sioner of its par­ent agency, Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion. — AP

Eyes in the sky: A teth­ered bal­loon, called WASP, be­ing used to spot il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties. — AP

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