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Under the radar: Unmanned Mexican orbiter drone crashes in El Paso

By John Byrne
Monday, December 20, 2010 9:16 EDT
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It’s not just the US using drones anymore: it’s Mexico too, and they’re literally crashing in our own backyard.

On Tuesday of last week, a small Mexican drone crashed in the El Paso Valley, as far as a half-mile into the United States. Little is known about the crash or what the device was doing in US airspace. US officials returned the craft to Mexico.

“We are collecting data about the crash. We don’t have the aircraft because it was returned to its owner,” Keith Holloway, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, told the El Paso Times on Friday.

Holloway told the paper the drone was a mini orbiter unmanned aeronautic vehicle manufactured by the Israeli firm Aeronautics Defense System.

“According to the developer’s website, the aircraft is designed for use in military and Homeland Security missions,” the paper’s reporters wrote. “It can be used for reconnaissance missions, low-intensity conflicts and urban warfare.”

“According to www.defenseindustrydaily.com in 2009, Aeronautics Defense Systems of Yavneh, Israel, planned to sell Mexico’s federal police over $22 million worth of its Skystar 300 surveillance aerostats and small Orbiter UAVs,” they added.

Mexican officials didn’t return calls for comment by the paper. This is the first time a Mexican drone is thought to have been operating near the US border. A police detective told reporters that the craft descended into a residential backyard, and that his department was told it wasn’t a police matter.

“I was told that it crashed in somebody’s backyard, and that no one was injured,” El Paso police Detective Mike Baranyay told reporters. “I was paged at 6:28 p.m. on Tuesday, so it happened shortly before that. We were told it was not a police matter.”

As a NATO member, Mexico has approval to obtain higher intensity drones than the one that actually crashed. Noted Wired’s Spencer Ackerman on Friday:

It appears to be a case of border security gone wrong. The Mexican government has been testing the Orbiter for help monitoring the border, U.S. officials told MSNBC, and this one malfunctioned and crashed. Federal officials solemnly returned the wayward drone to their Mexican counterparts. Curiously, a representative from the Mexican attorney-general’s office declaimed any knowledge of the drone crash.

McLeary notes that it’s hardly a mystery why the Mexican government would want the drones hovering near that stretch of border: it’s right by violence-riven Ciudad Juarez, a drug-cartel-plagued city that has seen a stunning 3000 murders in 2010, thanks in part to a veritable flood of American guns. The drones might as well fly, because very little else is working. A recent paper from the Center for a New American Security analogized the region’s violence to an insurgency. The Mexican Army went into the city in 2008 bearing artillery.

Which makes it a little curious why Mexico’s only messing around with tiny drones like the Orbiter. General Atomics recently got export-control approval to sell the Predator — sans missiles — to non-NATO countries for surveillance usage. On the other hand, if the Mexican government can’t keep a drone with a 3-pound-plus payload in the air, maybe a slow transition into the world of unmanned aircraft is good thing.

 
 
 
 
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