Bor­der Pa­trol tests cam­era-tot­ing bal­loon

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LOCAL & REGION - By El­liot Sp­a­gat

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.

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