Feds eye unmanned drones for ocean smuggler patrol

U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Monday took delivery of its first Predator aircraft drone to scan U.S. waters for smugglers.

The Predator B is expected to begin testing in early 2010 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida and be used in the Caribbean to combat drug trafficking.

The plane has an enhanced radar system compared to the Predator B that has been used to combat drug smuggling and movement of illegal immigrants on land borders for four years. CBP operates three drones from Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and two from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Another Predator B for maritime use is expected at Cape Canaveral in January, said CBP spokesman Juan Munoz-Torres. The agency plans to eventually have 12 drones for land patrols and six for maritime patrols.

The planes can be disassembled and flown in C-130 cargo planes to other locations but it is unlikely that the first plane will be used in San Diego, Munoz-Torres said. The Southern California seas has been the site of a surge in illegal immigrant smuggling from Mexico.

The plane delivered Monday was made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, for $13.5 million. Future deliveries are expected to cost $11 million to $12 million.

© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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