Desert Invasion - U.S.

U.S. Border Security Going Sky High

By Dave Eberhart,

Flying high above the desert on the border between Arizona and Mexico, the very keen-of-eye on the ground might spy it on a clear day.

The fleeting specter has a wingspan of 32 feet and is 18 feet long. Weighing in at around a half-ton, this particular "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle," or UAV, can fly continuously for 20 hours at 70 nautical miles-per-hour, and though its normal operational altitude is 9,500 feet, it can power its way up to 18,000 feet.

Built by the Israeli company Elbit/Silver Arrow, the Hermes 450 is a workhorse of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the Arizona Border Control (ABC) Initiative. Its mission: remotely monitoring, patrolling, gathering intelligence, and tracking activity along the U.S.-Mexico border. It's Price tag: $2 million per copy....

The burst of interest in UAVs as key instruments of national security extends beyond just the land borders and out over the seas.

By example, the San Diego-based General Atomics Mariner UAV is undergoing testing to fill the Navy's need for a maritime surveillance UAV system to replace the manned fleet of P-3 Orion aircraft.

The Mariner's impressive flying platform of avionics, sensors and communications gear is a whopping 86 feet, with a wingspan 20 feet longer than the Hermes. With additional internal fuel tanks, its flight time is 49 hours or more....

But experts agree that UAVs are not the stuff of magic silver bullets.

In 25,000 hours of border flight tests, two UAVs have crashed. That makes the UAV accident 100x higher than that of manned aircraft...

On the plus side, it's all about dollars and cents. The unit cost of a P-3 manned aircraft used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is $36 million. Blackhawk helicopters, which are frequently used on the borders, cost $8.6 million per unit....

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