After quietly testing Predator drones over the Bahamas for more than 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security plans to expand the unmanned surveillance flights into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to fight drug smuggling, according to U.S. officials.
The move would dramatically increase U.S. drone flights in the Western Hemisphere, more than doubling the number of square miles now covered by the department’s fleet of nine surveillance drones, which are used primarily on the northern and southwestern U.S. borders.
But the high-tech aircraft have had limited success spotting drug runners in the open ocean. The drones have largely failed to impress veteran military, Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Agency officers charged with finding and boarding speedboats, fishing vessels and makeshift submarines ferrying tons of cocaine and marijuana to America’s coasts.
As the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration prepares to let civilian unmanned aircraft operate in domestic airspace, universities including Embry-Riddle have created majors in flying and building drones. Enrollment is accelerating as students look for new opportunities in an aviation job market pummeled by airline bankruptcies.
The drone industry, estimated worldwide at $5.9 billion annually, will expand to $11.3 billion by 2021.
During the past 10 years, drones have become a vital military tool in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating a platform to attack terrorists without risking pilots’ lives and giving ground troops a chance to see their opponents from the air.
Congress passed bills in December and February that ordered the FAA to create six test sites for flying unmanned aircraft alongside regular planes. The agency must also complete a plan for integrating unmanned flights into the aviation system by Sept. 30, 2015.
Unmanned aircraft could be used for photography, police surveillance and monitoring pipelines and power lines. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has special permission to use drones.