There is an interesting debate that is starting to emerge on the suitability of using UAVs for border security. DHS inspector general Richard Skinner provided some baseline data about UAV costs in his testimony last week on the Hill (see page 8 of pdf). This article discusses the general aviation community’s growing hesitancy about using UAVs – in part because of a natural preference for manned aircraft, but mainly because of worries about new TFRs. Defense Tech had a solid post on this subject a few days ago, which describes some of the unsolved airspace management issues that have slowed their implementation on the border.
The use of UAVs on the border is definitely not the same slam-dunk technology application that UAVs are in hostile and enemy territory, where one of their key differentiators is their higher risk tolerance to getting shot down. If it takes a ground crew of 20 people to operate one, as the inspector general testified, then I have a hard time seeing how they are cost-effective in comparison with small piloted planes – which obviously can’t stay in the air for 20 hours, but require little ground support. A decision on UAV deployment needs to be ultimately driven by rigorous cost-benefit analysis consistent with the “systems approach” to border security that Sec. Chertoff has talked about since July, most recently in his speech on Tuesday…not by the coolness factor of one technology over another.