U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said Thursday that border officials have broadened their request to fly an unmanned aircraft in Texas to allow the drone to cruise along the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Rio Grande.
Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo , also said that Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt would work as quickly as possible on the request.
The plane, which would be based in Corpus Christi, is expected to be approved by this summer and begin operating by the fall, Cuellar said Thursday after hosting a meeting between officials from the FAA and Customs and Border Protection.
"These aircraft will increasingly become a familiar means for providing homeland security," Cuellar said in a statement. "The real time intelligence they provide will benefit our domestic security strategy and give us a new tool to meet the evolving threats of the 21st century."
Customs and Border Protection officials' original request to the FAA asked only for permission to fly a single surveillance aircraft out of Corpus Christi and along the Rio Grande.
It is intended to help Customs and Border Protection officials search for drug smugglers and illegal immigration.
Now, border officials also want to fly a Predator - or possibly a maritime version called a Guardian - along the Gulf of Mexico up to Louisiana, Cuellar said.
Customs and Border Protection operates three such aircraft in Arizona, one of which is permitted to fly over far West Texas. It also runs two from North Dakota and flies a Guardian out of Florida with help from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Cuellar also said that after the American-Statesman raised questions about whether "chase planes" would be used, he asked Babbitt about the planes, which sometimes follow behind unmanned aircraft to help prevent accidents.
FAA and congressional documents from 2003 to 2009 show that the FAA has sanctioned the use of such planes. A 2007 document noted safety concerns about the planes possibly interfering with other aircraft or with "persons or property on the ground." In 2009, the FAA said either a chase plane or an observer on the ground should keep visual contact with a drone to make sure it would not "interfere with other aircraft."
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But Cuellar and others agreed that using chase planes has a downside.
"Of course, it defeats the whole gain of not having a pilot inside," said Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is an expert on unmanned aircraft. "You are now limited by the endurance of the chase plane pilot."
Though chase planes do offer another set of eyes, they also double the number of fast-moving objects that might crash into one another, said Singer, who was interviewed by e-mail.
Cuellar said Babbitt seemed to agree and said a Corpus Christi-based drone wouldn't require a chase plane.
An FAA spokesman said Thursday that chase planes now are generally not necessary in Class A airspace, which is between 18,000 and 60,000 feet.
Texas officials have been pressing federal officials for years to use an unmanned craft along the Texas-Mexico border. A spokesman for the FAA said safety has been the agency's primary concern.
"The FAA has moved cautiously in this area because of concerns about the ability of these aircraft to operate in an environment where other nonmilitary aircraft are present," FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.
The safety record of Predators lags a bit behind that of manned airplanes, according to the Department of Defense, the government agency most familiar with the craft.
The Defense Department, which operates about 6,800 unmanned aircraft of varying sizes, said there were eight mishaps per 100,000 flight hours over the past three years for larger unmanned planes. By comparison, the accident rate for noncommercial airplanes has been 6.3 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.