John Miller  /  AP
A U.S. Border Patrol unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, sits on the tarmac at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., on Friday.
updated 6/25/2004 8:53:16 PM ET 2004-06-26T00:53:16

The Border Patrol launched an unmanned drone Friday that uses thermal and night-vision equipment to help agents spot illegal immigrants trying to cross the desert into the United States.

The stepped-up surveillance is part of a mission that officials hope will stem the tide of illegal immigrants that have made Arizona the busiest illegal entry point along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

The two drones being used in the project can detect movement from 15 miles up, read a license plate, view a vehicle's occupants, and even detect weapons, officials said.

Roger Maier, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, confirmed that one of the remotely piloted Hermes 450 drones started flying Friday morning. It was unclear when the other one would be used.

The drones weigh almost 1,000 pounds, have a 35-foot wingspan and can fly faster than 100 mph. They will patrol at 12,000 to 15,000 feet. They can stay aloft for 20 hours at a time.

The overall cost of the mission is estimated at at least $10 million, with the government spending about $4 million on the drones.

Pilots on the ground will remotely control them unless the flight is preprogrammed, with an agent interpreting the images and using global positioning to send other agents to respond to what the drones detect.

The aircraft are a key element of the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to achieve "operational control" of the border in Arizona. The drones' mission ends Sept. 30, when it will be assessed to determine the future of drones with the Border Patrol.

Border Patrol agents catch hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants trying to cross Arizona's sprawling, cactus-covered deserts each year. The agency had recorded more than 330,000 apprehensions since Oct. 1 in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which covers most of the Arizona border.

The Hermes 450s, which Israel uses to patrol its frontiers, join a number of unmanned aerial vehicles being used in the United States.

Remote-controlled planes help gather data for environmental studies and patrol Western skies on wildfire watch. In Alaska, the Coast Guard is also testing a drone this summer for fisheries patrols and other uses.

Drones called Predators have also been successful in U.S. military and CIA operations. Missiles fired from Predators have killed al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and Yemen.

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