US Customs and Border Protection has flown a Predator-B drone patrol along the Western Canadian border from Lake of the Woods, Minnesota to near Spokane, Washington, using an expanded ‘Certificate of Authorisation’. (It is already flying drones on an eastern section of the border, as reported by the CBC. Apparently the patrols focus on the Akwesasne Reserve, subject to persistent allegations of smuggling). Security Magazine reported that the Predators had been grounded for some time by unreported software problems.
This is not the first drone flight along the Western Canadian border, flights have been carried out since February 2009, presumably under a different level of authorisation.It is uncertain how many flights have been carried out, and whether they have provided any useful information. The RCMP believe that they will benefit from information obtained by the American drones. Wired Magazine reported that the drones would be controlled from Grand Forks and their information analysed in Washington and Riverside, California.
MSNBC reports that the drones, which cost more than $10 million each, will have laser spotlights that light up ‘targets’ with light only visible to wearers of special goggles, for example crews of intercepting helicopters.
There is no indication the drone was armed, although Predator drones are the mainstay of US attacks on Pakistani territory. Government Security News reports that there were two Predator B drones operating from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota in 2009, which is the home base of these drones.
One assumes that the Predator now has, or will have, an array of surveillance equipment. UPI reports that the drones would transmit ‘live video, radar streams, and photos of footprints’ back to base. Scripps News reports that there would be both infrared and HD video.
One assumes, though that may be too much to assume, that the drone will fly only in American air space. The drones would be able to fly in Canadian airspace with Canadian permission. Would that require them to meet Canadian standards for flying in civilian air space?
The drone will gather information from the immediate border territory as well as well beyond the border into adjacent parts of Canada. Scripps News reported that the Predator’s sensor array monitors a 25 mile (40 km) swath of land, but won’t be flown within 10 miles (15 km) of the Canadian border, meaning that it would monitor a 15 mile (25 km) swath of land within Canada.
(Scripps News reported scepticism over the drone deployment, noting that several commentators felt it was a technological solution promoted for political purposes).
It is uncertain what types of information are best obtained from Predator drones. There are other types of surveillance arrayed near the border (I’ve encountered cameras on the border years ago in Waterton Park). And satellites are capable of providing very detailed images if required.
Will the drones simply make occasional or regular passes along the border? Will they sometimes stay ‘in situ’ overhead, circling? Will they be collecting other data about Canada or Canadians, essentially covert long distance espionage?
One imagines long periods in which the drone operators and the people analysing the data find nothing at all. The area monitored will be approximately the size of Great Britain. Perhaps they will spend their time gathering data for their next fishing trip north of the line? Will they be spotting marijuana patches in the Kootenai Mountains? More sinisterly, will there be a lot of false positives, generating tensions between the two countries?
Dvorak Uncensored blog reported that US border official Michael Kostelnik as saying:
“There are vast parts of the border where, on any given day, we’re not sure what’s going on, so part of this is to try to deal with the unknown and not be surprised.”
Most of us could telling him what is mostly happening on a given day. Not very much at all .