Border security is the first step of the proposed immigration reform bill - and some lawmakers see 24/7 surveillance as a key to stopping illegal crossers.
Ten drones already fly along the U.S. southern and northern borders. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not been able to fully use them, partly because of Federal Aviation Administration restrictions and partly because of a lack of money to operate them, said Randolph Alles, assistant commander of the Office of Air and Marine, which supervises the drones.
After nearly eight years of operating drones along the border, Alles said the agency is now reaping the benefits, but the program is still not where he wants it to be.
"Looking backward, it probably would have been better if we were able to bring them on slower," he said.
The most commonly used drone, the Predator B, can fly about 20 hours without having to refuel, compared with a helicopter's average flight time of just over two hours. With new technology such as VADER, Alles said the agency is getting more use out of the aircraft than before.
VADER, which stands for Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar, was developed for the war in Afghanistan. It lets agents track activity in real time and distinguishes humans from animals from an altitude of 25,000 feet. Last year, CBP borrowed the radar from the military to test it in Arizona.
U.S. Sen. John McCain is among VADER's supporters.
"It seems to me that's an incredible technology tool," McCain told Alles during a congressional hearing in April. "Don't you believe that VADER plus drones could be absolute vital tools in attaining effective control of our border?"
As lawmakers started to debate the immigration bill last week, McCain said the government needed to use more technology such as drones and VADER to increase border security.
Alles would not comment on possible requirements of the immigration bill, saying his immediate goal is to get better use out of the drones he has by training more personnel, flying the dones longer and attaching better surveillance equipment to the aircraft.
A total of 10 drones fly now - five days a week, 16 hours a day out of Sierra Vista and five days a week, 10 hours a day out of the locations in Texas, Florida and North Dakota.
Alles' long-term goal is to fly drones seven days a week, 16 hours a day - "we are not there yet," hesaid.
CBP's original plan was to purchase 24 unmanned aircraft, but Alles said he doesn't have the money to buy more - and even if he did, he doesn't have enough money to operate them all.
The agency spends $32 million to $34 million to operate and maintain the 10 aircraft a year. That includes expenses related to ground-control stations, repairs, satellite communication and engineering support. The total cost of the program has been estimated at several hundred million dollars.
In fiscal year 2010, CBP had to transfer $25 million from other programs to address operations and maintenance funding shortfalls.
Since the program's inception, critics have questioned if the $18 million cost for each fully equipped aircraft is the best use of taxpayer money.
If CBP were flying seven drones - the number the agency had at the time of a 2012 report by Homeland Security's inspector general - it would need to fly them 13,328 flight hours annually to reach its "desired capability."
At a per-hour flight cost of $3,234, that would require nearly $62 million per year - about 12 percent of the entire operations, maintenance, and procurement budget for CBP's Air and Marine branch.
Given the operational cost of the Predator B, the amount of drugs and people the drones help seize is not impressive, said Adam Isacson, a regional security policy expert for the Washington Office on Latin America, an organization that studies the effects of U.S. policies on Latin America.
The four drones based in Sierra Vista - which fly mostly along the Southwest border but can be shifted to other areas as needed - have flown nearly 12,000 hours and helped seize 82,000 pounds of marijuana since fiscal 2006. CBP didn't provide the number of apprehensions.
From fiscal years 2008 through last month, Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border seized more than 13 million pounds of marijuana.
Nationwide, drones have helped seize more than $650 million worth of drugs, "which basically pays for the program by itself," Alles said.
The unmanned aircraft are also used during floods and hurricanes, he said, although 95 percent of their missions are along the borders.
VADER is helping, too. The radar can detect about 11 people an hour, Alles said, more than any other detection tools in the system, including fixed towers or other aircraft.
Isacson said drones and radars like VADER, though expensive, will help CBP see more of what's going on at the border, which is good.
But he questions if the agency will have the personnel needed to catch everything detected on the nearly 2,000-mile stretch of the southern border.
The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Los Angeles Times reported that Border Patrol agents last year apprehended fewer than half of the people VADER spotted crossing into a stretch of Southern Arizona.
Among the limitations, the internal reports revealed that Border Patrol agents often are not available to respond because of rugged terrain or other assignments, the Center for Investigative Reporting found.
Alles said the internal report was misused and doesn't reflect apprehensions in the zone where the radar was used. CBP is getting two of the $5 million VADER systems and plans to deploy at least one in Arizona in about a year. At the recent Congressional hearing he told McCain the goal was to have six radars.
Whatever shape comprehensive immigration reform takes in the end, Isacson said, it's not likely to pass without requiring the use of more drones.
"Putting more drones and technology on the border is an easy way to convince more conservative members of Congress to vote for this," he said. "It feels it's inevitable."
"Looking backward, it probably would have been better if we were able to bring them on slower."
assistant commander of the Office of Air and Marine
Fiscal year 2006 (Oct. 4, 2005-April 24, 2006)
One Predator B UAS operating out of Arizona
• Operational hours flown: 959
• Illegal immigrants apprehended (including smugglers): 2,309
• Illegal drugs seized (pounds): 8,267
Fiscal year 2012 (Oct. 1, 2011-Sept. 30, 2012)
9 UAS operating; 10th acquired Sept. 2012
• Operational hours flown: 5,700
• Illegal immigrants apprehended: 1,408
• Illegal drugs seized (pounds): 58,000
Source: Customs and Border Protection
HOW IT STARTED
• 2004 - Customs and Border Protection, with funding from Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, began testing small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in Arizona for border surveillance.
• 2005 - CBP launched its own predator program under the supervision of the Office of Air and Marine.
• 2006 - The first predator purchased by CBP crashed near Nogales because of an error by a General Atomics contract pilot.
• 2010 - CBP operated five Predator B UAS, four from Arizona and one from Grand Forks, N.D.
• 2012 - CBP had acquired a total of 10 UAS; including three Guardians modified for mari- time operations.
• Today - Four Predator B UAS operate out of Sierra Vista; two out of Grand Forks, N.D.; two out of Corpus Christi, Texas, including one Guardian; and two Guardians out of Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Source: Customs and Border Protection, Office of Inspector General
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at email@example.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo