December 8, 2009 / 2:17 AM / 10 years ago

New drone to scour U.S. coast for smugglers

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Federal border police will soon launch an unmanned surveillance aircraft with marine radar to patrol the coastline for drug smuggling boats, authorities said on Monday.

The remote-controlled plane acquired by the Customs and Border Protection agency is an adapted and unarmed version of the Predator drones built by California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc and flown by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Customs spokesman Juan Munoz-Torres said the new drone, able to stay aloft for up to 20 hours, will be used to scour the Pacific, Caribbean and Gulf coasts for drug smugglers.

“The aircraft that we received today ... gives us the ability to go after the drug traffickers in transit and source zones,” Munoz-Torres told Reuters after a public unveiling in Southern California.

The agency, charged with securing the U.S. border, already has five Predator B drones in operation. Three patrol the U.S.-Mexican border and two based in North Dakota are at work along the Canadian border.

The new maritime version of the aircraft cost $13.5 million. Dubbed the “Guardian,” it will be based at Cape Canaveral in Florida and will begin operational testing in early 2010, customs officials said.

Munoz-Torres said the agency would acquire a second maritime version of the drone early next year, bringing the agency’s fleet of the unmanned surveillance aircraft to seven.

Since taking office in January, President Barack Obama has pledged to work with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, to combat Mexican traffickers who smuggle drugs north into the United States and guns and cash profits south to Mexico.

In recent months, Mexican smugglers have stepped up attempts to slip illegal immigrants and drugs into California via the Pacific, using small boats and even surfboards.

Traffickers also use the Caribbean coasts of Mexico and Central America to smuggle in narcotics.

Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Steve Gorman and John O'Callaghan

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