Border Patrol tests camera-toting balloon
SAN DIEGO — The U.S. 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 3-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 drew the Border Patrol’s interest largely to save money. The company says one costs $800,000 plus about $350,000 a year to operate, depending on how often it’s moved. By contrast, operating the current fleet of six large balloons costs $33 million a year, according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.
The Border Patrol said it was evaluating results of the trial. The agency hadn’t disclosed the trial, but the AP learned details from Aguilar, Cuellar and head of the agents’ union Brandon Judd. Agents began experimenting with the WASP 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.