Source: nytimes.com

 

FARGO, N.D. — Federal Customs and Border Protection authorities are preparing to launch unmanned aircraft patrols from this state, the first time such monitoring will occur along the nation’s northern border.

 

A Predator B aircraft, delivered to Grand Forks on Saturday, will make runs along the northern edge of North Dakota using sensors that can provide video and detect heat and changes to landscape, Customs and Border Protection officials said.

 

The plane, which can go 260 miles per hour and fly as high as 50,000 feet, can stay aloft for 18 hours. The first missions, designed to help spot people crossing the border illegally or avoiding ports of entry, are expected to start next month.

 

Similar aircraft have patrolled the nation’s southern border since 2005, where they have helped lead to the discovery of more than 18,000 pounds of marijuana and 4,000 illegal immigrants, a spokesman for the agency said.

 

John Stanton, executive director of the service’s national air security operations, said the authorities decided to move to the northern border because enough aircraft were now available. (The base cost for the Predator is about $10 million.)

 

Along the entire northern border, Customs and Border Protection officials make about 4,000 arrests and intercept about 40,000 pounds of illegal drugs each year.

 

For the moment, though, the flights from Grand Forks will remain mostly along the 300 miles of the upper edge of North Dakota and a slim part of Minnesota, Mr. Stanton said.

 

Asked whether he expected to uncover a significant problem with drugs, border crossings or terrorism in northern North Dakota, Mr. Stanton said no one was sure.

 

“We hope to actually use this aircraft to measure that,” he said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

 

Some experts have questioned the safety of unmanned planes. In 2006, a Predator patrolling the southern border crashed near Nogales, Ariz.; no one was hurt and no property was damaged, but the plane narrowly missed a house. Investigators blamed human error; the pilot was at a control panel far from the plane.

 

“This aircraft has over 300,000 hours of use,” Mr. Stanton said. “We’ve been able to capitalize on other peoples’ mistakes and lessons. This is as safe as we can possibly make it.”

 

The aircraft, about 66 feet long and weighing more than 10,000 pounds, experienced minor setbacks on its way to North Dakota. It was expected to arrive in Grand Forks on Thursday from an Army field in Arizona, but officials reported maintenance problems and the flight was delayed a day. On Friday, the plane was forced to turn back after encountering poor weather and turbulence. It touched down at the Air Force base in Grand Forks on Saturday afternoon.