CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Texas wants Homeland Security to increase the number of unmanned drones that patrol its 1,200-mile border with Mexico.
One Predator based at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi patrols Texas' border with Mexico and the Gulf Coast, while three operate out of Fort Huachuca, Ariz., said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat. A fifth operates out of Grand Banks Air Force Base, N.D.
Cuellar and two other members of the Texas congressional delegation met with state and federal officials to push for additional unmanned flight operations in South Texas.
"Texas tends to be overlooked, probably for political reasons," said Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican. "We're the logical spot. We have the most border, not to mention our coastline, and we need some more assets down here."
The drones, which carry a complex camera system, are built for stamina, not speed and maneuverability, said pilot Scott Peterson, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.
The aircraft cruises at less than 100 mph but can top out at more than 300, he said. With 1,000 horsepower engines, they can reach altitudes of 50,000 feet and can travel about 5,000 miles on a single tank of fuel. The camera system is enclosed in a revolving turret beneath the nose and is designed to penetrate maritime haze, enabling it to operate over water.
Plans to expand the radar package will increase the aircraft's ability to detect shipping far out into the Gulf of Mexico, Peterson said.
The Federal Aviation Administration closely regulates where the drones can operate and how many can be licensed to fly from each base, a bureaucratic obstacle Farenthold said he hoped could be adjusted.
The machines have brought criticism from Mexican officials, who say they are a threat to the country's sovereignty when allowed to operate over Mexican soil.
Texas Ranger Capt. Bob Bullock Jr. said the 144 men and women of the state's lead criminal investigation division have come to appreciate the Predator more as they understand their capabilities.
"It's an officer safety issue," he said. "If I've got Rangers on the ground and there is a large group moving toward them, I can notify them of what's ahead."
Bullock said the drones also help Rangers know ahead of time where contraband is being moved and whether intelligence coming from the other side of the Rio Grande is reliable.
(Contact Rick Spruill of the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi, Texas, at www.caller.com.)