Monday, February 23, 2015

Drone training offered at National Air Security Operations Center

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- One afternoon in early January, Max Raterman took a call for assistance as local law enforcement agencies were beginning to investigate a tragic, fatal train-school bus crash near Larimore, N.D.

"We happened to have a Predator up doing a training exercise," said Raterman, director of air  operations at the National Air Security Operations Center-Grand Forks, part of the U.S.Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine.

So, Raterman directed the crew to fly the unmanned aircraft to the scene to photograph the crash site from an altitude of 19,000 feet, the Federal Aviation Administration's designated airspace for that aircraft.

"I didn't hesitate," he said. "I thought we could leverage that to help the families, maybe help law enforcement investigate the accident, and maybe help the families bring some closure."

While equipment aboard the Predator flying at that height cannot provide vivid detail -- neither facial recognition nor vehicle license plate identification -- it provides aerial perspective for investigators.

Training and operations

The National Air Security Operations Center, located at Grand Forks Air Force Base, is the national training center for Customs and Border Protection.

It provides hands-on UAS experience for some 40 pilots annually, rotating through in smaller groups for eight-week classes.

"If you fly unmanned aircraft for CBP, you come here for training," Raterman said.

Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine has nine Predator drones, including two at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Besides Grand Forks, the drones are flown from: the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ariz; Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas; and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Jacksonville, Fla.

Because the Predator is a satellite-controlled aircraft, it can be flown from any location in the country, as long as it has a ground control station with a satellite link to the system.

Besides being the main training site, Grand Forks is also an operational site, said Robert "Tex" Alles, Office of Air and Marine assistant commissioner, who visited Grand Forks this past week.

"So, they could be flying a mission on the southwest border this afternoon. They could be flying one in Texas tonight. They could be flying on the northern border tomorrow," he said.

"We have aircraft down in El Salvador. They could be flying an El Salvador mission right here out of Grand Forks and then go out into the minus-10-degree weather when it's 90 degrees in El Salvador."

Eyes in the sky

Customs and Border Protection, created after 9/11 as part of the new Department of Homeland Security, is a law enforcement agency with three main components: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with about 21,000 employees; Border Patrol, with about 20,000 employees; and the Office of Air and Marine, with about 1,750, although the number now is down to about 1,600, including about 1,200 gun-carrying federal agents, according to Raterman.

Office of Air and Marine maintains operational control of Customs and Border Protection's aircraft and boats, although Border Patrol agents usually operate the boats on border waters, such as Lake of the Woods. The agency has FAA authority to fly within 100 miles of the nation's border.

"It's a CBP law enforcement organization, separate from the Border Patrol, separate from field operations. But because we're in the air and on the water, you're not really going to encounter us very much," Raterman said of the Office of Air and Marine.

"If I'm a pilot and I'm flying and you're looking to cross the border illegally, you're never going to see me, because I'm going to call the Border Patrol, and they're going to apprehend you. So, to a certain extent, we're kind of transparent to the average public."

Grand Forks center

When the Grand Forks operation center was established in 2009, it was divided into two sections, part of it stationed at the air base, the other at Grand Forks International Airport.

Besides the two unmanned Predator drones, the Grand Forks center also operates two Cessna 206 fixed-wing airplanes, and one AS-350 helicopter.

Although the fixed-wing aircraft are still housed at the airport, the operations were combined last fall under one command at the air base.

Today, Raterman oversees a crew of about 17, including 14 pilots -- all of them gun-carrying law enforcement officers or air interdiction agents, as they are technically called -- for the fixed-wing aircraft.

All unmanned aircraft pilots are fixed-wing pilots with at least 2,000 hours of flight time, plus the requisite UAS training.

The unmanned Predator, on the other hand, takes a team of a dozen to 15 people for each flight, including two pilots who operate the ground control station -- like an airplane cockpit with about a half dozen video screens, a computer keyboard and various controls.

"It's only unmanned in the sense that nobody's sitting in it," Raterman said.

Cooperation and outreach

The Larimore school bus crash is one of dozens of local law enforcement incidents in which the Customs and Border Protection has assisted in recent years.

The Predator has been used to help in flooding, perhaps to detect whether a bridge is in danger of being washed out, or a dam is being threatened. Sensors also can detect soil saturation levels, to give officials a sense of flood danger before flooding occurs.

Among the agency tools are hand-held devices that law enforcement officers on the ground can use to see the same images as the Predator sees from the air. They can help officers determine, for example, whether a meth lab is occupied as they make an approach.

"If the sheriff calls and requests our help, we'll say, what do you need. Then, we'll assess the situation, and what we might have available to assist," he said. "Maybe we'll send a fixed-wing aircraft to transport gear and a SWAT team six counties away."

Still, Raterman said, most people do not know about the agency's Office of Air and Marine.

So, he has started a public outreach program.

For example, he now attends weekly training sessions for new law enforcement officers conducted at the Grand Forks Public Safety Training Center, to explain the Customs and Border Protection's mission and to offer the Office of Air and Marine's assistance.

He also is clear about what its limitations are.

"We'll offer whatever we can," he said, adding that if the unmanned Predator had not been in the sky when the school bus crash call came in, he could not have justified the cost of placing it into service.

"We have to be accountable to the public," Raterman said. "The public owns all these assets and we really do believe that. It's not a flying club. We're a border security agency and we have to be responsible for what we do."

Story and photo:

Max Raterman, Director of Air Operations, Office of Air and Marine, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, oversees operations for unmanned and manned aircraft for Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine at GFAFB. Here he inspects one of two MQ9 Predator B UAS that the agency uses to patrol U.S. borders and to assist local law enforcement agencies.
Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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