US border patrol drones cost $28,000 per arrest

US border patrol drones cost $28,000 per arrest

By Ryan Whitwam Feb. 27, 2015 12:00 pm homeland drone

Predator drones were originally designed for military operations, but they’ve found a new use in the Department of Homeland Security. A fleet of nine drones patrol the skies over the southern US border in search of suspicious activity. That sounds neat, but a new report from the DHS inspector general calls the entire program into question. According to the report, each arrest made with the assistance of the drones costs a whopping $28,000.

The Predator is manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and entered service in the US Air Force in 1995. Since then it has been used in military operations throughout the world as a surveillance and attack platform. The Air Force regularly uses Predator drones equipped with powerful Hellfire, Stinger, and Griffin missiles. The drones used by DHS are weaponless, but they have advanced surveillance packages that can spot someone trying to cross the border even in the dead of night.

Predator drones were first deployed by DHS in 2005, but even early on there were concerns over the cost and effectiveness of the program. While it’s true this is cheaper than having standard planes patrolling the sky, there simply aren’t that many people to catch. The border is vast and the logistics of watching the entire thing aren’t feasible right now. When a Predator does locate someone crossing illegally, border guards can zero in on them almost immediately. These arrests are usually of illegal immigrants, but sometimes a drug runner is snared by the drones.


The new DHS report tabulates all the arrests that can be attributed to drones and concludes that each one costs $28,000. Each of the nine drones cost the agency $12 million and current annual operating expenses are $62.5 million. In total, the program has cost $360 million since inception. If you do the math, that’s a little less than 13,000 arrests in 10 years.

Despite the high cost, the border drone program is still popular in Congress. That’s probably because it sounds good in speeches. It just turns out not to be a very good investment.

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