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UAS Transparency At The Federal Level

Transparency is one of those words bandied about so often that it seems to take on different meanings depending on who's using it. But transparency was exactly what we got when UAS Magazine staff visited the U.S. Customs and Border Protection site.
By Patrick C. Miller | October 22, 2015

Transparency is one of those words bandied about so often that it seems to take on different meanings depending on who’s using it. But transparency was exactly what we got when UAS Magazine staff writer Ann Bailey and I visited the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities at the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Air Force Base—one of three in the nation that flies the unarmed General Atomics Predator B on border patrol missions.

From the moment we were met at the base’s gate by David Fulcher, a CBP pilot and the facility’s deputy director, every question we asked—even on controversial topics—was answered clearly and thoroughly. That attitude starts at the top.

Max Raterman, director of air operations at CBP’s Grand Forks station, welcomes media visits and addresses the hard questions that come with them—and any government entity that uses UAS for law enforcement gets plenty of those. Also on hand to address technical issues related to CBP’s Predators and ground control operations was David Sprague of General Atomics.

My interest in CBP’s use of Predators in the national airspace was piqued last May during the Association for Unmanned Vehicle System International (AUVSI) conference in Atlanta. In response to questions about when UAS beyond-line-of-sight operations would be allowed, Jim Williams, former head of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, pointed out that the CBP was flying such missions on a daily basis. I was curious as to how the agency’s experience translated to the UAS commercial world.

Not only did Raterman, Fulcher and Sprague answer those questions, but they also briefed us on the capabilities of the sensors deployed on the Predators and the types of missions they fly. For example, we learned that the latest ground-scanning radar CBP uses can detect tire tracks and footprints from above 20,000 feet.

Raterman also gave us an up-close look at two of the CBP’s Predators housed in U.S. Air Force hangers at the base. Across the tarmac, we saw a few of the Northrop Grumman Global Hawks flown by the Air Force. We were definitely in the heart of UAS country.

We learned how the CBP’s aircraft have been improved based on operational experience, how they might be improved in the future and how all of the agency’s Predator pilots are trained at the Grand Forks facility. Fulcher also discussed how the General Atomics’ UAS training academy at the Grand Sky commercial UAS park adjacent to the air base could impact CBP’s training.

During the afternoon we spent at the base meeting with CBP and General Atomics personnel, we covered more ground and saw far more than I can possibly cover in one blog. Look for the full story and photos in an upcoming UAS Magazine feature.