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Coast Guard tests drones from Florida to find missing boaters and catch drug smugglers

The unmanned aerial vehicles that fly sorties over Afghanistan and Pakistan are coming to Florida to fly over the Gulf of Mexico.

But their missions here will be quite different: The Coast Guard wants to use them for drug interdiction and search and rescue.

"It has great potential that we're investigating right now," said Admiral Thad W. Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard.

Unmanned drones are used extensively by the U.S. military overseas but are certainly no stranger to the nation's skies.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Homeland Security Department, has been using Predator B drones to monitor the nation's northern and southern borders since 2005.

Predators can fly at high altitudes for long periods while their flight and sensor controls are operated remotely from the ground. They're also hard for their targets to detect.

The U.S. has credited armed Predators with killing militants aligned with al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But they have been blamed for many civilian deaths there.

Those Predators, however, are armed. The ones used domestically are not. They're equipped only for surveillance and tracking. But can they surveil and track objects on water?

That's what the Coast Guard needs to find out. That's why the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection jointly developed a maritime version of the Predator B.

Its name: the Guardian. And it's more advanced than the drones that patrol the nation's borders, the admiral said.

"The Coast Guard has helped develop a prototype Predator that uses a maritime radar that moves beyond the sensors you have for land targets," Allen said. "It just brings in another level of technology to counter the drug threat."

The drone, which is the size of a small airplane, cost $13.5 million to develop, according to the New York Times. It has a range of more than 3,200 nautical miles and can stay in the air for more than a day.

But to succeed, the Guardian needs to be able to find everything the Coast Guard's staffed vessels can already find via air and sea: vessels in distress; passengers fallen overboard; powerful "go-fast" boats used by human smugglers; and semi-submersibles carrying tons of cocaine underwater.

That ability is what differentiates Predator Bs from the Coast Guard's version: There's a maritime surveillance radar mounted beneath the aircraft, giving it a noticeable bump on its belly.

Allen said test flights should begin in March at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A successful test should lead to the acquisition of a fleet.

The advantage of unmanned aircraft, the commandant said, lies in the disadvantage of its manned aircraft.

The Coast Guard uses several aircraft to search for missing boaters and drug smugglers: the HC-144A Ocean Sentry, the HC-130H Hercules and the HU-25 Guardian.

But those aircraft and their crews can stay aloft for only so long.

Drones "allow you to fly at higher altitudes and a lot longer at much less cost," Allen said, "than if you have an airplane with a crew on it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Coast Guard tests drones from Florida to find missing boaters and catch drug smugglers 02/21/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 22, 2010 11:56am]
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