Robot aircraft keeping watch over Texas border

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on October 11, 2010 at 11:48 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 12 at 1:37 PM

CORPUS CHRISTI — Corpus Christi is known for the scenic view across the bay. But now it will also be known for the new view from the sky over the Texas-Mexico border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection rolled out the first Texas-based Predator drone that will fly from the Naval Air Station here.

The pilotless craft is designed to fly for 20 hours on one tank of fuel.

The Predator joins three others based in Arizona to provide full coverage over the Southwest U.S. border.

The Corpus-based drone will watch an 800-mile stretch of the Texas-Mexico border, from the Rio Grande Valley to Big Bend.

In the the command center on the ground, a pilot and co-pilot fly the Predator and guide its powerful cameras and radar by remote control.

"It allows us to have somewhat of a standoff and operate with a higher degree of accuracy," said pilot Drew Gellerson.

The Predator is capable of tracking suspicious vehicles that are 12 miles away. Its infrared camera can pick up subjects crossing the border while personnel coordinate CBP vehicles and a manned helicopter to catch them.

The drone carries highly sensitive radar, too.

"We were able detect a cut in the steel fence a quarter inch; it was made by a blow torch," said David Gasho, director of air operations at the CPB's Unmanned Systems Center. "Based on that change detection, we told Border Patrol something significant happened here. They went out there and told us — sure enough — they had cut a portion of the fence out, and they just stood it right back up."

While the Predator is in the air, back on the ground the political debate goes on regarding just porous the U.S.-Mexico border really is.

Both candidates for governor — incumbent Republican Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Bill White — are critical of the federal government's effort to secure the border.

But the Obama administration says there are 21,000 Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border, double the number standing guard six years ago. More are on the way.

"It is undeniable that this border is safer and more secure than it's ever been," said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin.

The Predator now based in Texas may not be the last. The $600 million border security bill just approved provides for two more drones, and another could be assigned to the state.

From Corpus Christi, the view of the border is now much sharper.

E-mail bwatson@wfaa.com

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