Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
SIERRA VISTA - Sitting in a pilot seat, David Gasho types a set of GPS coordinates into a computer in front of him.
A black-and-white image of desert terrain comes into focus as an infrared camera mounted to the Predator B unmanned aircraft scans the slice of the border Gasho wants to see and sends live video via satellite.
It's been nearly 30 minutes since radar operators in California alerted this crew of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine air interdiction agents to a suspicious ultralight plane, and they still haven't spotted it. Time is ticking - radar operators tell agent Dan Robbins the ultralight is getting close to the border. If they don't spot it soon, it could drop a load of drugs and get back to Mexico without agents seeing where it went.
Robbins, Gasho and pilot Kevin Krogh aren't in a cockpit, but instead are inside a 32-foot trailer at the Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, directing the Predator B and controlling its cameras and radar. The small craft they're flying high above the U.S.-Mexico border is hundreds of miles from where they sit.
Finally, the aircraft's synthetic aperture radar spots movement that may be the ultralight.
"See that hit out in the middle of nowhere?" asks Brad Van Cleave, the crew's radar operator.
Gasho uses the control stick to move over the green dot on the map, and clicks. The camera pans over and Gasho zooms in a bit. He's using the infrared mode, and a hot spot - a star-shaped white object - appears on the screen.
"I got him!" Gasho says, standing up to touch the spot on the screen. "Nice job, guys."
The $2.5 million Raytheon camera mounted to the Predator B captures a clear picture of the ultralight plane flying about 10 miles south of where the unmanned aircraft is loitering.
Gasho keeps the camera on the ultralight as it crosses the border into the U.S, drops a load of marijuana and men load it into a vehicle. The team's job is done, and federal agents on the ground take over the case.
"It doesn't get any better than that," says Gasho, director of the the Air and Marine unmanned aerial systems program in Sierra Vista.
The Predator B flying on this recent night is one of three based in Arizona and seven nationwide in the burgeoning unmanned aerial system program run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine.
Three more Predator B's are to come aboard by the end of 2011. That would bring the fleet to 10, up from one when the program was launched in 2005. The agency's Predator B fleet is now the world's second largest, next to the Air Force's.
The aircraft once used only by the military in overseas conflicts have found a home in the Department of Homeland Security because they can do what most manned aircraft cannot. The Predator B can fly for 20 hours at a time. Its cameras can determine from as far as 10 miles away if a ground sensor was set off by armed drug smugglers or cows. And it can collect intelligence on a suspicious house without anybody below knowing because it flies so high, so quietly and can get video while it loiters and watches.
"This a technology whose time has come," says Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, assistant commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine.
Over the last three fiscal years, the Sierra Vista-based Predator B has flown about 1,000 operational hours a year, or about 20 hours a week, along the Southwest border.
But the program has its detractors, who question if this is the best use of taxpayer money and whether the unmanned aircraft might crash into other planes in the sky or people on the ground.
The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't fully accepted unmanned aircraft into the national airspace because of safety concerns, limiting the hours and places they can fly.
The first Predator B operated by the DHS crashed and was destroyed in 2006 north of Nogales.
"Unmanned aircraft systems are a promising new technology but one that was originally and primarily designed for military purposes," Henry Krakowski, head of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization, said in testimony before Congress in September. "Although the technology incorporated into (unmanned aerial systems) has advanced, their safety record warrants caution."
Plus, an inanimate object can't do the job of a human, says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for Border Patrol agents.
"This is just a boondoggle for the contractors that are selling the predator drones," Bonner says. "The UAVs do lazy circles up in the sky, but they can't go down and assist in apprehending people, which helicopters can."
Small but capable
The Predator B is no pint-sized remote-control plane - it weighs 10,500 pounds, has a 66-foot wingspan and stretches 39 feet from front to back.
It flies at 19,000 feet above sea level - lower than commercial airlines but higher than small recreational planes. It can fly as fast as 275 mph but is designed to loiter and usually flies 90-125 mph.
The Predator B is limited by weather: It doesn't fly in heavy winds or freezing conditions.
Determining what triggered ground sensors is one the Predator B's most effective uses. It's not unusual for the plane to do 15 or 16 sensor evaluations in one day, Customs and Border Protection's Kostelnik says.
"We get a lot of false alerts with those things; the wind will sometimes set them off. Animals will set them off," he says. "In the old days, you would allot the agent only to find out there was nothing there. They save us a lot of man-hours and a lot of aviation fuel."
The radar system can also show changes in terrain or fences, which can help determine foot and vehicle traffic through an area or where the border fence has been damaged.
Two of the three Predator B's based in Sierra Vista are painted solid gray so they can take on covert missions. In a terrorist attack, for instance, they could be sent up to get surveillance without risking the lives of pilots.
The Predator B is credited with assisting in the arrests of 2,345 illegal immigrants and the seizure of 17,307 pounds of illegal drugs since the beginning of fiscal year 2009, Customs and Border Protection figures show.
The agency's first Predator B lasted only six months, crashing 10 miles northwest of the Nogales International Airport in the early morning of April 25, 2006.
The aircraft lost power when the contracted pilot failed to use checklist procedures while switching control from a console that had locked up, said a report from the National Transportation Safety Board. It hit the ground within 100 yards of a house. Nobody was injured, but the $6.5 million aircraft was destroyed.
Customs and Border Protection stopped using contract pilots, and today most flights are flown by pilots trained and certified by Air and Marine, Kostelnik says. There have been only three minor landing crashes since, he says.
But the program is still trying to prove itself to the FAA.
This July, the FAA submitted testimony to Congress that the accident rate per 100,000 flight hours of Air and Marine's unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is seven times the general aviation rate. Air and Marine leaders say the agency has flown the Predator B's only 7,000 hours, rendering the FAA's per-100,000-hour safety formula irrelevant, Kostelnik says.
The FAA acknowledges the small sample size, but spokesman Ian Gregor says the agency can use only existing data. The agency's main concern is the safety of other pilots, he says.
"Until UAS are more reliable and able to see and avoid other aircraft, we don't feel comfortable fully integrating them" into the national airspace, Gregor wrote in an e-mail. "Technology that allows UAS to detect, sense and avoid other aircraft is still years away."
The FAA limits when and where the Predator B's can fly. It doesn't let them fly with lights off, which makes it harder for the crafts to go unnoticed at night, Sierra Vista program director Gasho says.
"Can you imagine if we were lights out?" he says. "We would control the sky."
But Gasho understands the FAA's reluctance. "We are just at the beginning threshold of UAS technology," he says. He compares it to where airplanes were five to 10 years after the Wright brothers made the first airplane at the beginning of the 20th century.
The FAA has easedsome restrictions. This summer, it granted permission to fly Predator B's over the 1,100-plus miles of border in Texas. In October, it said two Predator B's could fly at the same time in Arizona.
Worth the price?
Money to buy and fly the Predator B would be better spent on manned aircraft or cheaper ground-based mobile surveillance systems, which cost about $800,000 each, says the president of the Border Patrol agents' union.
"Some members of Congress have been sold on this idea without analyzing the cost-benefit," Bonner says.
The Predator B costs about $6 million, and the rest of the system needed to fly it - antennas, sensor, radar, satellite bandwidth, systems spares, maintenance and ground support - brings the per-unit total to $18.5 million.
That's not cheap, but it's less than the cost of airplanes that do similar work for fewer hours at a time, Kostelnik says. And while a recent Congressional Research Service report says it costs twice as much per hour to fly unmanned systems, Air and Marine figures put the $3,234 per hour in the midrange among 18 Air and Marine aircraft.
"With as little money as we have, I wouldn't not be going down this path if it wasn't best value," Kostelnik says.
The aircraft have benefits, but Congress must decide if they're worth the money, says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for Stratfor Global Intelligence in Austin, Texas.
"You really need to do a careful cost-benefit analysis: Are these better than some of the aircraft they are using?" Stewart says.
The challenge for the program is hiring and training enough pilots to fly the growing fleet.
Taking off and flying the aircraft are easy compared with landing it safely. Unlike in a manned aircraft, a pilot has no peripheral vision and can't rely on feeling whether things are going wrong, says pilot Krogh.
In Arizona, Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine has 15 trained pilots, but Krogh is one of five of who can land the Predator B on their own. "You can't look around; you don't have any sensations," he says. "It's 100 percent reliability on what your instruments tell you."
In Arizona, the plan is to move one of two ground-control center trailers from Sierra Vista to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson to train some of the 90 Air and Marine pilots already there to fly the Predator B.
They need at least twice the current number of pilots to take advantage of the FAA authorization to fly two Predator B's in Arizona at the same time.
Squeezing in training isn't easy with all the requests from federal agencies looking to use the Predator B's unique skill set.
"Everybody wants a piece of the Predator pie," Gasho says.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org