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Unmanned aerial vehicles get funding boost

By Chris Strohm CongressDaily October 5, 2006

Congress has given the Homeland Security Department funding and permission to expand its use of unmanned aerial vehicles for patrolling the nation's borders and other missions, despite continuing concerns about their cost, safety and use in domestic airspace.

The fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill -- signed into law Wednesday by President Bush -- provides Customs and Border Protection $20 million for the acquisition of UAVs and related support systems. The bill also provides the Coast Guard about $5 million for UAVs.

House appropriators had threatened to withhold funding for UAVs in their version of the spending bill, noting that a Border Patrol Predator B drone crashed in late April outside of Nogales, Ariz. -- an incident that prompted the agency to ground UAV operations. Lawmakers said they have yet to receive a final report on the incident, and directed the department to submit its report by Jan. 23.

But in the end, lawmakers expressed strong support for using UAVs and gave the department permission to expand using them on the Northern border.

"The conferees encourage the [Homeland Security] secretary to work expeditiously with the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to establish and conduct a pilot program to test unmanned aerial vehicles for border surveillance along the U.S.-Canada border," lawmakers wrote in the report accompanying the bill.

The department did not provide comment for this story at presstime.

Meanwhile, the FAA has continued to grapple with how to incorporate UAVs into civilian airspace. Federal and local agencies have expressed interest in using the technology to help with everything from fire fighting to crime fighting.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, for example, hoped to begin using UAVs over the summer, but was forced to put the plan on hold after the FAA said the sheriff's agency would need a certificate of authorization before flying drones.

Last week, the FAA awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. to develop a "road map" for introducing unmanned systems into national airspace. The company said it will evaluate the state of mission needs, forecast near-term demands and develop a five-year plan to integrate UAV operations into domestic operations.

"By identifying the mission needs, operating environments and platforms expected for unmanned aircraft, and then mapping them against manufacturer plans and FAA certification timelines, we seek to provide the FAA with the big-picture of the emerging [UAV] market," said Ken Geiselhart, Lockheed's project leader.

Some government and industry officials argue unmanned systems come with a hefty price tag. "UAVs in the homeland security space are one of the most expensive platforms," an industry official said.

The Homeland Security inspector general noted the costs in testimony to Congress last December. "UAVs remain very costly to operate and require a significant amount of logistical support as well as specialized operator and maintenance training," he said. "[Border Patrol] officials mentioned that the cost to operate a UAV is more than double the cost of manned aircraft, and that the use of UAVs has resulted in fewer seizures."


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