U.S. Customs and Border Protection unmanned aircraft

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (WDRB) -- Illegal crossings happen every day at the U.S.-Mexico border, and people are creative about how they plan it. They climb walls, wade rivers and dig tunnels.

But with that creativity comes a response from Customs and Border Protection agents. With this tool, Air and Marine Operations employees  take to the sky.

Massive drones are part of the border agents' arsenal in 2020, and WDRB News was one of only two local television stations in the country to see how they work. 

At the Fort Huachua military base in Sierra Vista, about 75 miles southeast of Tucson, the drones look from a distance like planes. The Predator B comes with a price tag of $11 million each.

"Our goal is to detect the drugs at the border before they reach inland," said Jose Muriente, director of Air an Marine Operations. "It's not quadcopter that you can buy at Best Buy. It's a real aircraft. It has radios. When we fly, we communicate with the FAA."

Muriente says, "You hear UAS , unmanned aircraft, a drone. That's the word you hear all the time." 

The Predator B has cameras all over for all different kinds of environment, and they're massive. They have wing span of 66 feet and can fly continuously for up to 20 hours. The plane can cover 1,000 miles and fly at 50,000 feet.

Instead of having dozens of federal agents in small aircraft covering parts of the border, this is flown remotely. It operates like a high-tech video game.

There's a pilot on the left and what's called a sensor on the right, a person who is operating the cameras. They fly for two-hour shifts and go through rigorous training and are also certified to fly regular aircraft.

"What we're looking for is trying to detect illegal activity," said Leif McWhirter, a Tuscon native with Air and Marine Operations. "Usually, a lot of what we detect is for illegal migration and what we see is illegal drug activity."

The infrared capabilities on the Predator B allows agents to zoom in on objects and have a "fairly clear" idea if you're seeing a human, McWhirter said. 

"We can usually get close enough to see what they're carrying on their backs," he said, adding that that information then directs agents on the ground and helicopter pilots in their search for illegal border activity.

"We can get out to these far, hard-to-reach areas, where there's not roads for agents to get to easily."

With more states legalizing marijuana, Border Patrol said agents are seeing less pot but a spike in fentanyl and meth smuggling.

"The change is again in tactics," Muriente said. "Our technology is better. We're able to detect more ... It could vary on time of day. It could vary on weather. As an average, we could probably get 15-200 detections (per day)."

The government stresses the UAS or drones are not armed with weapons, but said they are effective weapons to find and fight drug cartels.

"They're switching their tactics and targeting every city and town in our country, and we want to make sure we stop that threat before it reaches there," Muriente said.

"If people weren't out there actively looking, everything is going to get by," McWhirter added. "What makes it rewarding for me is knowing I can make a difference."

Related Stories:

Copyright 2020 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.