Skip to comments.Feature: Border Hawk drone flies
Posted on 06/24/2003 4:21:46 PM PDT by Tancredo Fan
Feature: Border Hawk drone flies
By Steve Sailer
United Press International, June 23, 2003
LOS ANGELES (UPI) -- There's something about the idea of pilotless drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, that makes them seem both ominous and cool.
So, I was intrigued to hear from Glenn Spencer, head of a group of activists opposed to illegal immigration, that he was testing surveillance drones over the Arizona-Mexico frontier. He said his private volunteer organization American Border Patrol is developing a UAV they call the Border Hawk. Their plan is to deliver live over the Internet aerial coverage of illegal aliens slipping into the United States, and their purpose is to both assist and prod the federal U.S. Border Patrol in sealing the southern border against illegal aliens.
Some have denounced Spencer's team as "vigilantes" who are "militarizing the border." Others think that's just what the border needs. The reality turned out to look a little different than either view.
The concept of drones seems to inspire both moralistic shock and technophile awe.
Automated surveillance craft, such as the Sentinels in "The Matrix," are the stuff of science fiction paranoia, perfect for Philip K. Dick movies.
Yet, judging from the lavish multipage spreads that the newsweeklies have devoted to the U.S. armed forces' use of pilotless drones since Sept. 11, 2001, a lot of Tom Clancy wannabes view UAVs as the sexiest high-tech weapon, the ideal fashion accessory for Jack Ryan. On the morning of last November's Election Day, the news broke that a missile-firing Predator drone operated by the CIA had blown up a car carrying a leading al-Qaida member. Those reports certainly didn't hurt the Republican administration's candidates at the polls later that day.
Perhaps "war nerds" like me love the notion of drones because we imagine ourselves using our video game joystick skills to search and destroy America's enemies from the comfort of our dens.
I got a look at American Border Patrol's first-generation drone on a dusty ranch outside Palominas, Ariz., a few hundred yards from where the San Pedro River flows north from Mexico into the United States.
East of the Mississippi, the San Pedro River would be considered a creek, but in the semi-arid high plains of southeastern Arizona, it's a major ecological resource. The San Pedro serves as a north-south freeway for an extraordinary number of migratory bird species, including at least a dozen kinds of hummingbirds.
The San Pedro is also a north-only freeway for illegal migrants fleeing Mexico. They use the verdant cottonwood and sycamore trees that line its banks for cover from government agents in their green-striped sport utility vehicles. The border-crossers often wander onto Wes Flowers' small ranch alongside the San Pedro, breaking down the fences that keep his cattle home, setting the occasional brush fire and stealing or breaking his water faucets.
It's tough making a living as an Arizona rancher even without constant trespassers. Therefore, Flowers has been letting ABP use a big dirt field on his ranch.
When I arrived, about a dozen volunteers were purposefully milling about a few trucks and vans, peering at laptops and prepping motion detector sensors.
Where is the drone, I wondered.
My experience with flight-testing was limited to multiple viewings of "The Right Stuff," so maybe I was expecting to see Sam Shepherd stride bravely across a beautifully stark dry lakebed while liquid fuel boils off from his X-1 rocket plane. Or perhaps, ABP's critics were right about its militarist ambitions and this would be some kind of nascent version of Darth Vader's Death Star.
Well ... it turned out that the current incarnation of the Border Hawk looks like a hobbyist's radio-controlled model airplane. In fact, that's what it is. Granted, with its almost 6-foot wingspan, it's a really big model airplane, the kind that a divorced dad with a Platinum Card and an extremely bad conscience might buy his 12-year-old son at FAO Schwarz. Still, it's hard to think of what looks like a Piper Cub model as technohip.
But that's the point, according to Spencer, a youngish-looking 65, who was a longtime executive and consultant in the data-modeling business before becoming a professional opponent of illegal immigration. He doesn't want to reinvent the drone wheel. He can buy sophisticated model airplanes off the shelf and then have his technical staff modify them with bigger fuel tanks and custom electronics.
Later this summer, Spencer said, they'll have a 10-foot plane that can stay aloft for four hours, three times longer than rather than the current craft's 80-minute limit.
But war nerds and vigilantes will remain disappointed because, unlike the $4.5 million Predator with its 49-foot wingspan, the Border Hawk is never going to be a weapons platform.
Instead, Spencer's group is testing a concept for a cheap data collection network that could conceivably monitor the entire 1,852-mile border with flying television cameras directed to illegal border crossers by in-ground motion detectors.
Spencer showed no desire to physically confront the illegal immigrants who pour across the border each night. He maintains a "no contact" policy with the illegal aliens his organization videotapes. He said ABP's goal is to take pictures and let the government do the apprehending. "Was Ansel Adams a vigilante?" Spencer asked rhetorically.
His plan, he noted, is to narrowcast live coverage nightly over the AmericanBorderPatrol.com Web site, using low-light and thermal imaging cameras, of what he carefully calls "suspected border intruders." However, he intends to only report their global positioning satellite coordinates to the Department of Homeland Security to prevent vigilantes and other hotheads from beating the government agents to them.
Spencer claimed his goals are two-fold: to help the DHS's Border Patrol do a better job, and to make vivid to the public the extent of the illegal immigration problem in order to build political pressure for stronger enforcement of immigration laws.
In his research and development efforts, employs full time two genial younger men. The goateed and tanned "two Mikes" -- technical director Mike King and operations director Mike Christie -- are best friends from 15 years back. Both are recent refugees from the high-tech industry in expensive Santa Cruz, Calif., the seacoast of Silicon Valley.
Christie proudly told me, "The first thing you need to know about Mike King is that he was a U.S. Army sniper."
King enthusiastically described the focus of their research and development efforts -- not on the drone, but on creating footstep sensors superior to the government's detectors, and on the software to interface the devices with the camera planes. "If we had a government contract, we'd be bogged down in bureaucracy," King claimed.
In the field test, King buried two of his new sensors in the ground so their devices' antennas stuck up a few inches. He measured each one's precise latitude and longitude with a Global Positioning System gadget and entered the coordinates in his laptop.
While the Border Hawk circled a couple of hundred feet overhead, buzzing like a large mosquito, four APB members and myself walked past the hidden motion detectors single file. ("SBIs always walk single file," I was told.) The two gizmos successfully reported by radio our direction and speed, although they overestimated our numbers, signaling that there were 11 of us instead of five.
Our GPS coordinates showed up on a map on King's wireless-networked laptop and a volunteer, who is a model airplane hobbyist, piloted the Border Hawk to our location to record our presence. Somebody who happened to be logged onto ABP's Web site at that moment could have watched live aerial pictures of me squinting up at the drone.
As you can see, this is already a complex system. Several more elements must be added and interconnected to allow it to accomplish Spencer's goals. For example, the great majority of illegal immigrants walk north after dark, so night-vision cameras would be critical. Further, a remote-control pilot would be hard pressed to fly by eye at night, so King hopes to add a GPS system to the drone this summer.
Then there are the legal, political and economic issues. If the drones take pictures of other ranches, could that be a violation of privacy? (In a somewhat similar case, Barbra Streisand is threatening a lawsuit against an environmental activist who has posted on the Web aerial photographs of the entire California coastline, including her beachfront mansion.)
Further, much of the borderlands are owned by either the federal government or Indian nations. Would they be interested? Spencer is unsure whether federal agencies have a positive attitude toward his project. "The government doesn't want a report card. We're kind of a watchdog on the U.S. Border Patrol," he said.
Spencer hopes to raise money from property owners and the general public to carry on testing, but probably only governments could afford a massive deployment of this technology were it to prove effective.
Spencer hates it when his group is lumped with the more militaristic, high-powered rifle-carrying volunteer organizations that have sprung up along the border in the last couple of years. "We get smeared as a militia," he said.
One of his volunteers, Richard Humphries, a retired military pilot and law enforcement officer who imports the famous handmade pottery from the Mexican village of Juan Mata Ortiz, told me, "All we are is a neighborhood watch group. Except we are concerned with our whole country."
Spencer acidly remarked about a couple of other well-publicized anti-illegal immigration groups that pursue physical encounters with trespassers, "As Goethe said, 'Nothing is more frightening than ignorance in action,'"
He went on, "They are accidents waiting to happen. This is no longer John Wayne Country. It's Litigation Nation. The Mexican government wants to hit them with a law suit."
"Did you see any vigilante activity today?" Spencer asked me.
No. Then again, nobody would call the ABP men a bunch of wimps, either. Many of the volunteers made their careers in law enforcement or the military, or both. Like lots of ranchers in this lightly populated area, a couple of the fellows at the flight test wore gun belts with holstered pistols. This proved rather reassuring to me in this rattlesnake-infested region, especially because I couldn't see any sticks within reach in case I felt a sudden need to whack a venomous reptile.
In terms of personal style, Spencer is the odd man out among the ranchers and retired cops who look to him for leadership. He has a soft-spoken Southern California accent that he acquired growing up in Hollywood, where his father was a musician. (He recently moved from Los Angeles to Sierra Vista, saying, "California is finished.") Spencer has the manner of a professor at an MBA school, one with a predilection for jargon such as, "We'll need to run some Monte Carlo simulations to model how many drones we'd need to cover the whole border."
His eyes lit up whenever the talk turned to numerical analysis. Statistics are how he became a crusader against illegal immigration in 1991. "I looked at the numbers, and I just couldn't let this issue go," he said.
Spencer frequently debates the Rev. Dr. Robin Hoover, pastor of a Disciples of Christ church in Tucson, Ariz., and founder of Humane Borders, which maintains 38 water tanks in the Arizona desert to prevent illegal immigrants from dying of thirst.
Ironically, if you didn't know which was which, you might well guess that the gruff Reverend Hoover, with his thick West Texas cowboy accent, PG-13-rated vocabulary and love of pickup trucks, was the conservative activist, and the intellectual Spencer was the liberal Protestant minister with a Ph.D.
In an interview, Hoover admitted that unlike the Ranch Rescue organization in Texas, American Border Patrol has no interest in armed confrontations. But the liberal minister claims that "American Border Patrol is actually the most dangerous organization of all," calling Spencer an ideologue who advocates "culture war."
Spencer replied, "I'm ideological in that I want to save my country."
But in the end, the feds will come down on the technology you're using. Look to see them try and make model radio technology, GPS equipment, and if these things get big, General Aviation technology be heavily regulated or just made illegal.
The feds are already imposing a 30 mile restriction on all General Aviation aircraft wherever the president is. Which means during the campaign, a pilot runs the risk of getting arrested just because he didn't avoid the right area by enough miles.
The pilot is sitting on the ground. The drone is flown by a radio link. There is not only labor for the pilot doing the flying, but there is also maintenance to keep the UAV in good mechanical and electronic condition. The principal advantage is not having a live pilot in the aircraft. Less fuel. No risk to the life of the pilot. Ability to make high G maneuvers that a live pilot could not tolerate.
We have to have private people invest their own money to do what our government is constitutionally obligated to do?
They're doing everything they are not supposed to be doing and not doing anything they ARE supposed to be doing.
This saves the military having to train R/C pilots. Just send em up, and tell em where to go and when to come home.
The Great Syllogism
Reader, I have been vouchsafed a revelation, a sudden flash of understanding, a satori, a glimpse of the inner workings of the universe, of the waters that are under the earth, of the hidden tissues that connect aspects of reality not normally thought of as being related to each other in any way at all. Illuminated by that flash was quite a large part of the entire political landscape of the present-day USA, as if seen from a plane through a sudden gap in the clouds.
I am going to lay out my revelation in three parts: a preamble, then a syllogism, then a conclusion. The syllogism seems to me so all-encompassing and revelatory that, shucking off false modesty, I am going to call it The Great Syllogism. (Students of classical logic may complain that it is not, strictly speaking, a syllogism at all more like a dilemma. Syllogism has taken my fancy, though, and Merriam-Websters Third seems to permit this usage. How many students of classical logic are there nowadays anyway?)
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
Not so much a preamble as a actual amble, conducted here in the outer New York suburbs, through some leafy streets with houses standing on plots that vary from one-sixth to one-half of an acre, and that show up in real-estate catalogs, when they do show up, at prices from the low 300s to the high 600s. The time: around nine thirty on a weekday morning. My state of mind: I had finished my breakfast, read the newspaper, seen the kids off to school and the wife off to work, attended to some e-mail chores, and read some news and opinion pieces on the internet. Among the latter was Peter Woods review of John Ogbus Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb. Then I set out to walk my dog.
There arent many people around in the burbs at this time of the morning. Other than a couple of encounters with neighbors, the human beings I saw fell into three categories.
The garden-service people are solidly Central-American Indian types, though often working for a white boss. They are small-built, dark-skinned and black-haired. When I give them a friendly greeting they seem pleased and greet me back, smiling, but in a way suggesting that Good morning! is just about the limit of their English-language skills.
The construction people are a mix of white and Hispanic, the one constant factor being that everyone acting in a supervisory way is white. One of the roofing team the owner of the firm, it sounds like is talking up to his man on the roof. He is doing this through a third party, who translates his Noo Yawk English into Spanish.
The elderly lady out walking with her grandchild is white, but the childrens nurse pushing the stroller is a Mayan sculpture come to life. The wordless smile with which she returns my greeting shows gold teeth.
I dont see any black people at all, nor any East Asians.
(1) At any point in time this one, for example the United States economy needs different kinds of workers in different numbers. It needs a certain number of lawyers, accountants, architects and doctors. It needs a certain number of network supervisors, computer programmers, web designers, schoolteachers, tax preparers and nurses. It needs a certain number of garden-service workers, lumberjacks, auto mechanics, plumbers, steel-fixers, cops, soldiers and child-minders.
(2) Always scornful of privileges bestowed by accidents of birth or place, this country has a deep attachment to the idea of meritocracy. In recent decades we have developed an equally strong emotional investment in the concept of racial equality.
(3) Our very best efforts at creating a meritocratic education system always turn up the same unhappy results: students of Ashkenazi-Jewish and East or South Asian ancestry are over-represented among the educational successes, while students of West African ancestry are over-represented among the educational failures.
(4) All sorts of theories are available to explain (3) John Ogbus is only the latest. Unfortunately we dont know which theory is true. Possibly just one of the theories is true. Possibly the true cause is something nobody has thought of yet. More likely the truth contains elements, in different proportions, from several theories.
(5) Until we understand the causes of (3), the most meritocratic system of education we can devise will produce a society with a highly-paid cognitive elite in which persons of Ashkenazi-Jewish and East or South Asian ancestry are over-represented, a class of manual and service workers in which black people are over-represented, and a clerical or small-entrepreneurial class in which white gentiles are over-represented.
(6) Such a society would be grossly offensive to American sensibilities. (See (2) above.) It would also, in all probability, be unhappy and unstable.
(7) Adjustments to the meritocratic principle therefore need to be made: affirmative action, imposed diversity quotas in businesses, anti-discrimination laws, and so on. We must trade off some meritocracy for social harmony.
(8) The effect of these adjustments is as it is intended to be! to move up into the clerical class people who, in a pure-meritocratic system, would be in the manual class. (And, to a less significant degree, to move up into the cognitive-elite class people who would otherwise be clerks.)
(9) Corresponding adjustments to shift down into the manual class people who would, on a pure-meritocratic principle, be in the clerical class, are politically impossible.
(10) Therefore the manual class is seriously under-staffed.
(11) Millions of Third-worlders are only too glad to come to the USA to do manual or low-level service work.
(12) Unfortunately the immigration laws do not allow them to come here.
(13) The immigration laws should therefore be changed to permit a large inflow of unskilled aliens from the Third World.
(14) Such changes are unpopular with large parts of the American public, who fear the cultural and economic consequences.
(15) Politicians know (14) and therefore will not change the immigration laws. And so:
(16) For the sake of social harmony, we have no choice but to turn a blind eye while several million unskilled aliens enter our country and stay here illegally.
The paradox is that this particular way of avoiding one kind of social disharmony racial stratification by class introduces a different kind: the colonization of large parts of our cities by non-English-speaking foreigners who, because of their illegal status, are stuck outside the mainstream of American life. Also because of that same status, they are looked on with mistrust by citizens and legal immigrants. This unhappy state of affairs is none the less considered, by most of us, to be the lesser of two evils. Rough, dirty and strenuous work must be done. If, as we suspect is the case, the choice is between having that work done by (a) large angry black people, or (b) small friendly brown people, well buy the package: affirmative action plus massive unrestrained illegal immigration.
Our political classes, who of course know all that I have been saying here, had a plan to finesse the situation by simply regularizing the illegals, thus at least removing the stigma of law-breaker from them. That plan went up in the smoke of 9/11. It was, in any case, grossly unfair to legal immigrants, who have to jump through numberless hoops to get the right to live here (it took me seven years). We are stuck with the present situation, with the Great Syllogism. Probably we are storing up untold trouble for ourselves. The latest news in my own neighborhood is that an exceptionally vicious Central American gang named Mara Salvatrucha is now entrenched here on Long Island. (Working as landscapers and busboys by day and criminals at night, says the New York Post. Which puts those cheery lawn-service workers in a new light.)
Americans, though, do not lose much sleep over the prospect of future evils. This is a big, empty country filled with boundless optimism. David Brooks has remarked that the usual reaction of Americans when faced with disapproval, anxiety, and potential conflict is to move away. Similarly, given the choice between a pressing problem today and a reckless policy likely to deliver far worse problems tomorrow, we opt for the second. The future, after all, is full of possibilities, and by the time that second batch of problems arrives, we may have found some way to cope with them.
Lets hope that that is what happens. Ross Perot used to speak of the giant sucking sound of manufacturing jobs fleeing the U.S. to low-wage countries south of the border. The giant sucking sound I am actually hearing, ten years later, is the sound of millions of unskilled Third Worlders being pulled into this country by the vacuum at the bottom of the labor market a vacuum we have ourselves created by deciding that such low-quality work should not be done by Americans, especially not by those Americans most likely to be assigned to it by our educational system.
We no longer believe in the dignity of labor. We all want our kids to go to law school, and have convinced ourselves that they have a right to do so. What do you think the slogan No child left behind means? It means that no American child should have to become a low-status worker. Thats what it means, and that is what we honestly and sincerely wish, because we fear we know what an American-born class of low-status workers would look like. Everything else follows by pure logic.
At this stage of development these ABP "toys" may be "cost effective" but as these surveillance drones become useful thay are going to cost on the order of a thousand times more than they do now (>$30k/ unit).
The cost of the these aircraft lies not in their propulsion system or airframe but in their software and surveillance systems. Daylight imaging is cheap but night imaging of any useful resolution is astronomical. Reporting the position of the surveillance platform is realtively economical but reporting the position of the target in realtime is economically numbing for the private sector and their are only a limited number of sources for the navigation/flight/communication code. The individuals who developed this sophistocated software over the past 5 years aren't going to donate their work product to the ABP because they're patriotic.
One of the leaders in Micro UAV technology recently reminded me, when I broached the subject of ABP's experiments, that the cost of this technology is only justified by a free spending government because the system saves lives. The ABP will sadly conclude, after their experience, that it is cheaper to acquire, operate and maintain a light, civilian aircraft with a flight crew of two than it is to attempt to operate an autonomous, integrated, night surveillance system utilizing UAVs.