DHS Watchdog Says Border Patrol's Drones Are Expensive, Useless

from the 'just-like-your-mom,'-the-report-DIDN'T-add dept

The CBP’s drone squadron has been a tightly-held secret. Documents have been pried loose by FOIA lawsuits, but it’s pretty clear the DHS and the CBP would rather not discuss its flying surveillance technology. Not that the CBP drones are strictly for patrolling our nation’s borders. They’ve been spotted far inland, being used by law enforcement agencies taking advantage of the CBP’s drone lending library.

Finally, more details on the CBP’s drones have made their way into the public domain, thanks to an Office of the Inspector General report. [pdf link] The information contained in this document points to two seeming contradictions, albeit the sort of contradictions often found in government agencies that run long on Congressional support but short on effective oversight.

They’re expensive:

We estimate that, in fiscal year 2013, it cost at least $62.5 million to operate the program, or about $12,255 per hour.

And they’re worthless:

Given the cost of the Unmanned Aircraft System program and its unproven effectiveness, CBP should reconsider its plan to expand the program. The $443 million that CBP plans to spend on program expansion could be put to better use by investing in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground surveillance assets.

This table makes it completely clear how little this technology has contributed to safer borders.


The drone program began with the assumption that long-range eyes in the sky would be cheaper than running agents all over the place. Supposedly, the drones would be able to cover areas that wouldn’t be feasible using humans and ground vehicles. The CBP has 7,000 miles of land borders and 2,000 miles of coastal waters to cover, but its long-range drones, for the most part, kept an eye on only two very small areas.

[A]ccording to CBP, in FY 2013 UAS operations along the 1,993-mile southwest border focused on about 100 miles of Arizona border and operations in Texas concentrated on about 70 miles of that state’s border.

The OIG found that the CBP’s enthusiasm for drones far exceeded the agency’s grasp. It envisioned nearly round-the-clock surveillance over large areas. It delivered minimal coverage for nearly $13,000/hour.

[T]he unmanned aircraft logged a combined total of 5,102 flight hours, or about 80 percent less than what OAM anticipated.

The OAM (CBP’s Office of Air and Marine) blames budget constraints. It wants $443 million to acquire more drones and keep the ones it has airborne more often. But the OAM seemingly has no idea what its actual costs are, much less what it might need to reach its 16-hour-a-day goal. It underreported drone operating costs to the OIG by nearly $10,000/hour. And yet, it wants to be trusted with more money and more toys.

The Office of Air and Marine’s calculation of $2,468 per flight hour does not include operating costs, such as the costs of pilots, equipment, and overhead. By not including all operating costs, CBP also cannot accurately assess the program’s cost effectiveness or make informed decisions about program expansion.

Even with 5,100 hours of flight time being logged, the eyes in the sky contributed to only 2,300 apprehensions. The CBP’s ground forces made over 10 times as many apprehensions. An apprehension for every half-hour of flight time is a pretty good ratio (said here without any meaningful stats to compare it to), but that works out to about $6,000 per detainment — hardly an indicator of efficiency.

The CBP argues that apprehensions aren’t a good measure of the drones’ value. It prefers to use “detections.” All well and good, but even though that number is higher (18,239), the agency was unable to demonstrate to the OIG that there was a meaningful connection between what the drones “saw” and effective border enforcement. The OIG notes the CBP’s objection, but still sticks with the lower apprehension measurement.

The CBP also claims drug seizures to be a better measuring stick of effectiveness than apprehensions, but even this self-selected metric is underwhelming.


The report also calls out the CBP for vastly misrepresenting the amount of area covered by its drones.

According to CBP, our statements that unmanned aircraft are not operating along the entire southwest border are inaccurate. CBP said OAM has authorization to fly, and has flown, the unmanned aircraft along every stretch of the southwest border, from California to the Texas gulf coast.

OAM provided additional flight hour information that showed 44.6 hours flown over California and 3.8 hours flown over New Mexico. The California hours involved an unmanned aircraft flying over that state to conduct missions over water off the state’s southern coast. We do not know what the 3.8 hours over New Mexico flight hours involved. OAM did not provide information that showed surveillance missions in either of these states.

We believe it is misleading for CBP to report that its unmanned aircraft operate over every stretch of the southwest border when these flights appear to be simply on the way to another mission.

It’s not that drones are completely useless. It’s that these particular ones are. Ars Technica quotes drone law expert Brendan Schulman:

“Smaller drones, used in closer proximity to border areas, may turn out to be far more efficient and effective at this type of mission,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The Predator is a very large airframe that is over a decade old. One of the recommendations of the report is to conduct a study on whether investments in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground technologies, might work better. Newer, low-cost drones that have been developed over the past year or two might be another alternative worth investigating.”

The best thing the CBP can do at this point is drop its defensiveness about its underutilized (but overhyped) drone program. There is no doubt the agency will continue to use drones, but it needs cheaper and more agile technology. And while it’s updating its fleet, it should also update its Privacy Impact Assessment. We know the FBI has yet to make its public, and the CBP’s current PIA makes no mention of its drone lending program — nor does it require similar assessments from those it lends its fleet (and operators) to.

Drones will continue to be a part of border surveillance, but just because they’re inescapable doesn’t mean the CBP is justified in its insistence on throwing more money at a program that clearly needs a major overhaul.

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Comments on “DHS Watchdog Says Border Patrol's Drones Are Expensive, Useless”

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21 Comments
Anonie Mouse says:

‘Even with 5,100 hours of flight time being logged, the eyes in the sky contributed to only 2,300 apprehensions. The CBP’s ground forces made over 10 times as many apprehensions. An apprehension for every half-hour of flight time is a pretty good ratio (said here without any meaningful stats to compare it to), but that works out to about $6,000 per detainment — hardly an indicator of efficiency.’

I think you might have a math error. With 5,100 hours of flight for 2,300 apprehension, that is about 2.2 hours per apprehension. At $13,000 per hour, that is just shy of $29,000 per apprehension.

For the same $62.5 million, you could hire five (5) people for each mile of the 170 mile stretch and pay each of them $70,000 per year. Five people would give 200 man hours per mile per week, which would more than cover a 168 hour work week and some amount of vacation. One officer per mile, 24 hours a day, 365 (or 366) per year.

If they spent the additional $443 million the same way, they could cover an additional 1,200 miles of the border with a similar five (5) person crew per mile at $70,000 per person per year.

The drone isn’t going to swoop down and apprehend anyone, 6,000 additional officers would.

Anonymous Coward says:

UAV operations vs ground operations

Sorry, but I’m seeing apples and vacuum being compared here… the article gives “cost per UAV-attributed interception”, but not the aggregate “cost per (any) interception”. We can’t say if UAV interceptions are higher or lower. Was that information in the OIG report but left out of this article?

Second: we have no information what the cost to deploy conventional resources over the same territory would be, to achieve a similar level of apprehensions. Should we also judge CBP’s naval forces with this same yardstick? I’m betting “cost per apprehension” for the navy is higher than the “average” as well. It would be kinda hard on the “ground forces” stationed in the sea lanes, I imagine.

Third: we have no information on the ‘quality’ of the apprehensions. Are these primarily refugees? Smugglers? Terrorists? As well, have these UAV-involved apprehensions had follow-on effects that would make the cost worthwhile? Say, shifted smuggling to other routes where they are easier to track?

If all you wanted to point out was “the cost of drone use is more expensive than is being reported”, that’s fine. But if you want to say “we need to do something about this because of the this under reporting”, we need more information to make an informed judgement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Fun with stats

So the program covered 170 miles of border out of a total of 1,993 miles? That means it covered .8% of the border. The total arrests were 275,392 and it contributed to 2,272 of them. That puts it at .825%. So it appears to be pulling its own weight. Of course I think most would expect it to do more than pull its own weight, especially for the price.

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