The Customs and Border Protection unit of DHS has considered arming the drones it uses for border surveillance with “non-lethal weapons,” a government document obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains. DHS, Concept of Operations for CBP’s Predator B Unmanned Aircraft System: Fiscal Year 2010 Report to Congress (July 29, 2010).
Video of CBP drone.
CBP regularly flies “Predator B” drones manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical (formally called “unmanned aircraft systems” and abbreviated as “UAS”) over border communities to watch cross-border traffic. One of the primary missions of its UAS program, the document reports, is to interdict migrants. CBP Operations at 24. Occasionally, the agency assists local law enforcement agencies meet their own surveillance needs by tapping CBP’s drone abilities. CBP thinks of drones as a “force multiplier” that can help the federal government manage cross-border movement. CBP Operations at 14. A pilot controls CBP’s drones on the ground who has the ability to override the machine. CBP Operations at 28.
The agency reports numerous “challenges” it faces operating its drones, including the fact that “[l]and border and maritime domain regions present unique and frequently conflicting sensor requirements.” CBP Operations at 22. “The challenge,” the document goes on, “is to provide…sensors that provide mission flexibility while ensuring detection and tracking of critical TOIs [targets of interest].”CBP Operations at 22. In other words, the agency (or more likely, the company that builds the drones) needs to figure out how to keep the drone from mistaking one object for another. Among the “targets of interest” the document specifies are “conveyances that may be used to smuggle…undocumented migrants.” CBP Operations at 25.
Importantly, the agency explains that in the long-term it may add “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize TOIs.” CBP Operations at 63. Though it lists this possibility in a section about potential uses “beyond the current budget cycle,” the mere mention of armed drones flying over the United States in search of targets is remarkable. As I wrote about previously, the immigration bill passed by the Senate included additional funding for drones. The bill limits their use to within three miles of the border in California, but hundreds of thousands of people live in these areas. For them, the “costs of border militarization,” as Jennifer Chacón wrote on this blog, includes drones flying overhead—one day, maybe with weapons attached to their wings