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Eyes in the Sky: Are Pricey Border Patrol Drones Worth the Money?

The White House requests millions more for drones as it deals with a surge of immigrant youths.
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High above the U.S.-Mexican border, Predator drones fly in relative quiet. They are the Border Patrol's sentinels in the sky as thousands of immigrants flood over the invisible line dividing the two countries and a political firestorm over what to do about the crisis rages in Washington.

The bird's eye view afforded by drones doesn't come cheap. The White House wants an additional $3.7 billion to deal with the current crisis, with $39.4 million committed to air surveillance — including funds meant for 16 additional crews to operate and maintain drones.

“Border Patrol wants the money and it wants the drones,” Gregory McNeal, a law professor and drone expert at Pepperdine University, told NBC News. “This is the kind of crisis where, if you are Border Patrol, you seize the opportunity to get more funding from Congress.”

With a wingspan of 27 feet and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator is the most recognizable technological tool at the Border Patrol’s disposal. But the agency has other gadgets it uses to look for immigrants and drug traffickers crossing the border.

Like the Predator, the Raven is widely used by the military. It’s a much smaller drone — only 4.5 feet across — meant to be thrown into the air, providing a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area for over an hour. If a Border Patrol agent gets intel on action on the border, he or she can simply drive to the general area, pull a Raven from the back of the truck, and fling it into the air to see what is happening nearby.

Suspicious vehicles stopped at the border sometimes get a visit from a Z Backscatter Van — essentially an X-ray machine on wheels. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spent $5 million on them last year to scan vehicles for contraband. (They could one day be replaced by handheld “X-ray guns,” which just hit the market last month).

This year, Border Patrol agents began using wireless, camera-equipped robots to explore cross-border tunnels meant to sneak people, drugs and weapons into the country. Also new is radar surveillance equipment that can detect people as far as seven miles away while mounted on trucks and tripods.

No new piece of technology, however, has the had the impact that the large Predator drones have. But does the United States need to spend millions more to keep them in the sky?

"This is a better way to patrol the border than helicopters," McNeal said. "It’s not a comprehensive immigration solution or border security solution, but more surveillance time in the air will help plug gaps in the border."

A typical Predator drone can fly for 12 hours before landing, compared to three for a standard helicopter. Not that they are always in the air.

The CBP's drone program was criticized in 2012 when a report from the Office of the Inspector General found that they were only in the air about 40 percent of the time that they were projected to fly, leading defense analysis firm Market Info Group to speculate that the Border Patrol was flying drones "because their politicians forced them to rather than because they want the robotic aircraft."

Predator drones are not cheap. They take a crew of between five to eight people — plus maintenance staff — to operate, coming out to about $3,000 an hour to fly. That is after the initial $18 million price tag.

Opinion is split as to whether they are worth it. William Hartung, of the Center for International Policy, told NBC News in an email that they are a "waste of money."

"They are basically the equivalent of very good flying cameras, but they can't be everywhere all the time," he wrote.

Others, like McNeal, argue that "they don’t cost more than manned helicopter flights for the same duration of surveillance," noting that helicopters seem cheaper because they fly for less time and therefore cost less overall.

Ryan Calo, a drone expert and assistant professor of law the University of Washington, thinks the drones can be effective, but worries about how they might be used in the future after reports of them being rented out to agencies like the FBI and local sheriff's departments.

"Once you have drones for this one purpose, you could start to use them more often domestically, and then they become part of an ever more militarized police force," he told NBC News. "That is a trend to be concerned about."