SEATTLE — The U.S. government's unmanned drones patrolling the U.S.-Canadian border are venturing into Washington state's airspace.
In testimony before a U.S. Senate panel this week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said northern border surveillance using unmanned aerial aircraft now expands from North Dakota to eastern Washington.
The two 10,000-pound Predator-B unmanned aircrafts based in Grand Forks, N.D., have a 950-mile coverage range and "they do enter Washington airspace, in the vicinity of Spokane," said Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Gina Gray on Thursday.
The unmanned aircrafts "can stay in the air for up to 20 hours at a time, something no other aircraft in the federal inventory can do," Gray said. "In this manner it is a force multiplier, providing aerial surveillance support for border agents by investigating sensor activity in remote areas to distinguish between real or perceived threats, allowing the boots on the ground force to best allocate their resources and efforts."
Since 2005, the Department of Homeland Security has deployed a handful of drones around the country, with some based in Arizona, Florida, North Dakota, and Texas -- with more planned for the future. Operations out of North Dakota first began in 2011.
The drones help both patrol and aid during natural disasters. For example, Gray said the Predators have mapped the flooded Red River Valley in the areas of North Dakota and Minnesota. The drones are equipped with cameras that can provide aerial pictures of disaster areas.
The drones also can be loaned to local agencies in cases of emergencies. In fiscal year 2011, CBP's drones contributed to the seizure of 7,600 pounds of narcotics and 75 arrests, Gray added.
The use of drones has proliferated among federal and local law enforcement agencies nationwide along with civilian hobbyists in recent years.