Crime & Justice

Customs introduces unmanned drones to patrol California's Mexican border

Unmanned, unarmed drone aircraft will soon be patrolling the skies over Southern California, looking for illegal immigrants and smugglers, federal officials say.

The planes, called Maritme MQ-9 Predator B Guardian Unmanned Aircraft Systems, have already been used along the Mexican border in Arizona and Texas, as well as along the Canadian border in North Dakota.

Representatives from pro-immigrant groups, including the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, were not immediately available for comment.

The drones to be unveiled this morning are based in the California high desert and will use radar, in addition to long-range video cameras, to spot smugglers or immigrants bypassing ports of entry, Juan Munoz-Tores of U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"This one has the capacity of detecting vessels in the water," Munoz-Torres said. "The sensors on board the aircraft are different."

The Predators are manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in Poway, which also makes the Sky Warrior. Both types of drones are used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and other countries. The drones will be based at a private airport operated by General Atomics about 5 miles east of Lake Los Angeles, some 160 miles north of the Mexican border.

The Predators used by Customs and Border Protection are controlled remotely by a two-person team on the ground, Kimberly Casitz, a spokesperson for the company, told the Union-Tribune.

"It's like a cockpit," Casitz said. "Someone is flying the aircraft; the other one is handling the sensors, cameras and radar."

Any intelligence gathered is transmitted from the aircraft to law enforcement.

Casitz said its main purpose is to counter drug smuggling. The unmanned aircraft will also transmit data on human smuggling by sea, which has been on the rise. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended 22 illegal immigrants Thursday on a boat off La Jolla.