FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. – The Border Patrol (search) launched an unmanned drone Friday that uses thermal and night-vision equipment to help agents spot illegal immigrants trying to cross the desert into the United States.
The stepped-up surveillance is part of a mission that officials hope will stem the tide of illegal immigrants that has made Arizona the busiest illegal entry point along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
The Department of Homeland Security (search), which is funding the program, also plans to test the drones in Northern states, over the Great Lakes and in Puerto Rico, said Robert Smith, head of the Customs and Border Protection's unmanned aerial drone program.
The two drones being used in the Arizona project can detect movement from 15 miles away, read a license plate, view a vehicle's occupants and even detect weapons, officials said.
Roger Maier, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection (search), confirmed that one of the remotely piloted Hermes 450 drones in the project started flying Friday.
Both drones were expected to go into regular use on Monday. They will fly 56 hours a week and can be used over preprogrammed flight paths or be piloted by remote control to check out specific destinations.
The drones weigh almost 1,000 pounds, have a 35-foot wingspan and can fly faster than 100 mph. They will patrol at 12,000 to 15,000 feet, and can stay aloft for 20 hours at a time.
The overall cost of the mission is estimated to be at least $10 million, with the government spending about $4 million on the drones.
Pilots on the ground will remotely control them unless the flight is preprogrammed, with another agent interpreting the images and using global positioning to send agents to respond to what the drones detect. It takes 12 to 18 people to operate the drones and monitor the images they send back, officials said.
The aircraft are a key element of the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to achieve "operational control" of the border in Arizona. The drones' mission ends Sept. 30, when it will be assessed to determine the future of drones with the Border Patrol.
Border Patrol agents catch hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants trying to cross Arizona's sprawling, cactus-covered deserts each year. The agency had recorded more than 330,000 apprehensions since Oct. 1 in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which covers most of the Arizona border.
Officials hope the drones will deter immigrants from crossing and will enable agents to better help people in distress.
Kat Rodriguez, an organizer for the human rights group Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, said changing U.S. border policy rather than increasing patrols is key to protecting lives.
"It's like throwing an infant in a pool and then jumping in and saving it. You act like the hero in a situation you created," she said.
The Hermes 450s, which Israel uses to patrol its frontiers, join a number of unmanned aerial vehicles being used in the United States.
Remote-controlled planes help gather data for environmental studies and patrol Western skies on wildfire watch. In Alaska, the Coast Guard is also testing a drone this summer for fisheries patrols and other uses.
Drones called Predators have also been successful in U.S. military and CIA operations. Missiles fired from Predators have killed al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and Yemen.