The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: UAVs Report for Border Patrol Duty

Discussion in 'Defence & Strategic Issues' started by joe81, Sep 25, 2010.

  1. joe81

    joe81 Regular Member

    Apr 24, 2010
    Likes Received:
    The question over whether unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer a wise investment as a standard border surveillance measure continues to leave governments worldwide awaiting a definitive answer - seven years after the US Department of Defense coordinated its first report on the use of these systems for homeland security.

    In the ongoing fight to minimise the growing threat of narco, weapons and human trafficking – and to suppress the pervasive risk of invasion by aggressors – the list of considerations that authorities must weigh appears to be a case of the good, the bad, and the contentious.

    The good
    Potential advantages are plentiful. UAVs can fill a vital gap by improving surveillance coverage in remote areas along a nation’s border, such as in a desert or mountainous region. Combined with this benefit, the level of detail which 'eye-in-the-sky' video equipment can feasibly provide has now reached an advanced stage. This would allow precise and real-time data to be transmitted live to ground control units for accurate and immediate response. Lightweight sensor systems on the craft, including those used for thermal detection, could provide critical information in the search for trespassers in dense forestry or similar complex terrain.

    Aside from the obvious advantage of eliminating the need to have a fully trained and wage-earning pilot in the air – and thus minimising elements of monetary and potential human cost – the sustained coverage that UAVs provide can be remarkably extensive when compared with manned aircraft. The Predator, for example, can loiter for up to 30 hours without needing to refuel.

    The bad
    Despite this, there are a similar number of legitimate concerns. Even with a high loiter time on paper, an unease remains over whether the vehicle will realistically stay airborne often enough to fulfil this capability. Figures suggest that these systems have been traditionally prone to fault and have a high mishap rate in comparison to their manned counterpart, with a Congressional Research Report reporting this to be up to 100 times greater.

    The efficacy of all UAVs is impacted by inclement weather, such as in taking off, landing, and flying in high wind. Likewise, the quality of the aforementioned advanced imagery equipment can suffer from distortion in this type of environment - something that has been seen to particularly affect Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) and Electro-Optical (E-O) systems. Unless future upgrades can overcome this obstacle, border agencies operating within harsh climates may grow tired of combatting these issues time and again.

    Another issue to be taken into account is that the inclusion of UAVs in the border security network will naturally require governments to legislate air space for these aircraft if they are to be flown in general “crowded” zones. This is admittedly not a major obstacle, but is a facet that will likely require detailed analysis and policy revision.

    Between these arguments, there are several ambiguous factors that are keeping decision-makers on the fence.

    The ugly
    UAV costs vary wildly depending on the platform and its sophistication, and range anywhere from several thousand dollars US to several million. In this respect, judging whether they are more effective in terms of a return on investment than a standard manned aircraft is open to debate.

    While the base cost of operating a manned aircraft is understandably expensive, other drawbacks include smaller surveillance coverage and the need to employ a skilled – and paid – pilot. That said, accident rates could also swing the balance. Relevant agencies may feel it makes more economical sense to pay out for manned options if the cheaper, unmanned alternatives frequently turn to splintered debris.

    There is also the fact that, despite its progress, UAV technology is still evolving. This is a double-edged sword for investors. In order to make the operation of UAVs worthwhile, it is probably necessary for it to possess several different detection systems to ensure it is covering the spectrum of possible scenarios. On top of this, upgrades to the kit will almost certainly be needed as technical issues will inevitably present themselves over time.

    Bleeding into this issue is the fact that human error on the part of ground operators is still a factor. More ‘autonomous’ UAVs in the future could potentially cancel out this negative, but this would presume that the electronics and initial programming of the mission into the UAV computer would be flawless.

    An uncertain verdict
    The popular theory is that focusing the budget on these systems will mean that UAVs will eventually be the most precise and efficient aircraft employed in the border security role, as long as advances in the technology continue to progress at the current rate. Others argue that the very presence of these craft, regardless of their full capabilities, can itself act as a strong and valuable deterrent to attempted border violations.

    While trials and research is needed on a wider international scale to make these issues more clear-cut, we must remember that every region will differ in both its requirements and in its results. There is also the matter of a gradual emergence of anti-UAV countermeasures running parallel to the general popularity of these systems that must be considered before long-term plans are made.

    Regardless of the uncertainties, the military domain’s love affair with UAVs shows no sign of ending, and as such, border authorities worldwide will be watching the industry with a keen eye over the coming months.

Share This Page