The U.S. Border Patrol is considering another type of surveillance balloon that can be quickly moved to spot illegal activity, part of an effort to see if more eyes in the sky translate to fewer illegal crossings.
Agents in Texas recently finished a 30-day trial of the camera-toting, helium-filled balloon made by Drone Aviation Holding Corp., a small startup that named former Border Patrol chief David Aguilar to its board of directors in January. The 3-year-old, money-losing company gave Aguilar stock options that may prove lucrative if it gets more orders for its proprietary model.
The trial comes as agents test hand-launched drones, which are relatively inexpensive but hampered by short battery life and weight limits. The Border Patrol has also used six large tethered balloons in Texas since 2012, acquired from the Defense Department.
President Trump has pledged to add 5,000 Border Patrol agents, but hiring has been slow. If drones and balloons are deployed more widely, fewer agents may be needed.
The new balloon — called Winch Aerostat Small Platform, or WASP — drew the Border Patrol's interest largely to save money. The company says one costs $800,000 plus about $350,000 a year to operate, depending on how often it's moved. By contrast, operating the current fleet of six large balloons costs $33 million a year, according to Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat.