Bor­der Pa­trol tests cam­era-tot­ing bal­loon

Startup’s new prod­uct could spot sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity more cheaply

The Arizona Republic - - The West - EL­LIOT SPAGAT

SAN DIEGO - The U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol is con­sid­er­ing another type of 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 might prove lu­cra­tive if it gets more or­ders for its pro­pri­etary model.

The trial comes as agents test hand­launched 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 might be needed.

The new bal­loon — called Winch Aero­stat Small Plat­form — drew the Bor­der Pa­trol’s in­ter­est largely to save money. The com­pany says one WASP 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, a Texas Demo­crat.

The Bor­der Pa­trol, in re­sponse to ques­tions from the As­so­ci­ated Press, said Thurs­day that it was eval­u­at­ing re­sults of the trial. The agency hadn’t pre­vi­ously dis­closed the trial, but the AP learned de­tails from Aguilar, Cuel­lar and Bran­don Judd, head of the agents’ union.

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.

“(Winch Aero­stat Small Plat­form would) be a great piece of equip­ment for us.” BRAN­DON JUDD NA­TIONAL BOR­DER PA­TROL COUN­CIL PRES­I­DENT

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 might per­form bet­ter in strong winds, which Aguilar said was ev­i­dent as Hur­ri­cane Har­vey hit nearby. Drone Aviation says it can han­dle gusts up to 45 mph.

On the flip side, the bal­loons can’t carry as much equip­ment. One U.S. of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the tech­nol­ogy said their cam­eras scanned 4 or 5 miles. The larger mod­els, with their heav­ier gear, can peer about 20 miles. The of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the Bor­der Pa­trol hadn’t pub­licly dis­cussed the bal­loons.

Judd, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Bor­der Pa­trol Coun­cil, said it would “be a great piece of equip­ment for us.” 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. He dis­cusses bor­der is­sues at con­fer­ences and in con­gres­sional hear­ings.

Drone Aviation pays Aguilar $24,000 a year and granted op­tions to buy 50,000 shares for $2.90 apiece in Jan­uary 2018 and 50,000 in Jan­uary 2019 at the same price. The stock closed Wed­nes­day at 99 cents in over-the-counter trad­ing.

The com­pany, backed by bil­lion­aire in­vestor Phillip Frost, posted a loss of $8.5 million on rev­enues of $1.5 million last year.

It em­ploys 24 peo­ple at its Jack­sonville, Florida, head­quar­ters, ac­cord­ing to a pre­sen­ta­tion for in­vestors in Jan­uary.

DRONE AVIATION CORP. VIA AP

The U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol is con­sid­er­ing a new type of sur­veil­lance bal­loon called the Winch Aero­stat Small Plat­form, or WASP.

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