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The US border patrol will press ahead with plans to enlarge its fleet of unmanned surveillance aircraft, despite embarrassing revelations about the programme which have emerged following a crash last year.

At the moment US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), operates two Predator B robo-planes from Fort Huachuca near the Arizona-Mexico border.

The Predator-B is a large turboprop drone, capable of carrying substantial payloads. The military version (aka the "Reaper") can carry a heavy load of ordnance including smart bombs or laser-guided Hellfire missiles.

CBP Predators are unarmed, but retain the military moving-target radar, able to sweep a square kilometre of ground every second and detect individual people. Radar contacts can then be confirmed by a telescopic thermal camera.

A CBP Predator-B crashed last year near Nogales, following a comical series of errors by its poorly-trained pilot on the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made no fewer than 22 separate recommendations for drone operations in US airspace as a result.

However, CBP is keen to get more Predators airborne so as to quell the epidemic of yearnings to breathe free along the southern borders.

"Nothing in this NTSB report will dissuade us from continuing to operate the Predator B program," said Douglas Koupash, CBP boats'n'planes chief, talking to the Arizona Republic.

It appears that by the end of 2007 the fleet will have increased to six, and may be carrying out patrols against possible incursions from Canada as well as Mexico.

Koupash asserts that his people have now implemented all but three of the NTSB recommendations, and says the current Predators have been very useful. CBP says the drones have flown 1,300 hours and contributed to more than 3,000 arrests and 14 tons of drugs seizures in just two years.

Other tech-heavy border security drives of recent times have included the bug-plagued SBInet Eye-of-Sauron style scanner towers, and plans to use spy satellites, which have run into trouble in Washington.

For now, the Predators are the only one of CBP's new eye-in-the-sky plans to work at all, so the patrol agents' enthusiasm for the robo-planes is perhaps understandable.

More from the Arizona Republic here. ®

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