US testing surveillance balloons on Mexico border


Associated Press

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 8:02 PM

PENITAS, Texas (AP) — The U.S. Border Patrol will evaluate the use of three helium-filled surveillance balloons along the Texas-Mexico border that were originally used by the Department of Defense in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Standing beneath a 52-foot-long tethered balloon on Thursday in Penitas, the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector Chief Rosendo Hinojosa said the blimp-shaped aerostat would help intercept smuggling along the busiest section of the Southwest border.

"This is going to give us a capability we don't have here," Hinojosa said.

During a similar demonstration last year, an aerostat tethered 2,500 feet above the ground easily made out the make, model and color of vehicles a couple of miles away. Their infrared cameras are controlled by operators inside computer-filled shipping containers near where the balloons are anchored. Many of the devices were previously used in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide security around bases.

John Milne, U.S. Customs and Border Protection's site director for the project, said the six-month trial will allow the agency to evaluate how the technology can be applied at the border.

The large white balloon displayed Thursday had a 1,300-foot tether, though it was hovering just above its trailer in gusty winds. Milne said its camera can reach five to 10 miles in optimal weather conditions.

Hinojosa said mobile surveillance technology such as the aerostats, which can be deflated and moved to new locations, will be helpful in keeping up with the changing flows of illegal traffic on the border.

The Border Patrol believes they could be effective against human and drug trafficking above the challenging terrain of South Texas. The agency has tested similar systems along the border in Arizona.

The Rio Grande Valley sector in the southernmost tip of Texas has received additional Border Patrol agents in recent months, but stretches of border along the winding Rio Grande remain without segments of border fence that were planned years ago.

For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Border Patrol made about 150,000 arrests in the sector, an increase of more than 50 percent from the previous year. And so far this fiscal year, the sector's apprehensions are exceeding last year's.

The area where the aerostat is being tested is at the end of a four-mile segment of border fence, where smugglers can cross the Rio Grande and be less than two miles from the main east-west highway traversing the area. Human and drug smuggling is common in the area.

In addition to the one in Penitas, two more aerostats will be posted in the sector. One will be in Falfurrias, an hour's drive north of the border where deaths of immigrants trying to circumvent the Border Patrol's highway checkpoint have become increasingly common.