Border cops’ camera-toting balloon taking off
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