- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

Homeland Security Department officials say they will work with the Federal Aviation Administration to impose flight restrictions around the North Dakota air base from which they plan to fly a remotely piloted plane this year to patrol regions of the U.S.-Canada border.

“We are working with the FAA to get restrictions on the airspace [above Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota] during certain time windows when we fly, typically at night,” said Gen. Michael Kostelnik, head of air and marine operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency inside the Homeland Security Department that flies the pilotless aircraft, known by their military acronym UAV, for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The UAV, a version of the military Predator B equipped with special cameras and other sensors, and with the ability to stay in the air for up to 30 hours, will be able to monitor remote and inaccessible regions of the border, officials say.

The flight restrictions, which will apply to small planes operating below 18,000 feet, are necessary because of the danger of collisions, but they will draw protests from those who own or fly private planes.

The agency already is flying one Predator B, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, over the U.S.-Mexico border, where it uses the already-restricted airspace around Libby Army Air Field at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

“But there are no restricted or prohibited areas near Grand Forks,” points out Heidi Williams, the head of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and the group “would oppose any new restricted airspace created solely for UAV border patrols.”

Gen. Kostelnik last week said that within three years, Grand Forks also would become the home of a National Guard UAV air wing, flying the less-sophisticated Predator A.

“We are working with the FAA to help them understand what the implications are of the growing use of UAVs,” he said.

The Homeland Security UAV at Grand Forks also will require special FAA certification to fly above 18,000 feet in “positive control airspace,” through which U.S. air traffic controllers guide commercial flights.

Customs and Border Protection will obtain “certificates of authorization to operate [the Predator B] in certain corridors in the national airspace” for the purpose of border patrols, Gen. Kostelnik said.

He added that the Predator B was “one of the most sophisticated aircraft on the face of the planet,” and that it would fly “mainly in the evenings and at night” in places with little existing air traffic.

“I’m not interested in flying this thing … in metropolitan areas,” he said.

Customs and Border Protection will have four UAVs by the end of the year, he added. The second will join the one already flying in the Southwest in April, the third will be delivered to Grand Forks by Oct. 1, and the last, delivered by the end of the year, likely will be deployed in a maritime role.

He said a prototype drone with sea-viewing radar would be tested in Florida to assess “its look-down capabilities, [and] its performance against targets we go after down there, and explore interface issues with other [air and marine] assets we have deployed.”

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