After months of requests and subsequent appeals, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on Thursday, April 24, released a pair of documents related to a drone crash off the coast of San Diego. But government-transparency activists are still in the dark about what the drone was doing when it went down and what caused an onboard generator to fail.
What is known: as of May 2013, Customs had a collection of ten MQ-9 Reaper drones, the latest model from San Diego's General Atomics, which also produces the more well-known Predator model. Six Predators are assigned to surveillance missions along the southwestern U.S. border.
In the early morning hours of January 28, an onboard generator failed on a Reaper launched in Sierra Vista, Arizona, causing its operators to ditch the aircraft in coastal waters immediately west of San Diego. An email went out at 2:10 a.m., shortly before the order was given to crash the drone, which immediately suspended all Customs missions involving the Reaper. The sender, recipients, and a brief section describing the mission were redacted from the released document.
A week later, on February 4, an order was issued clearing the remaining fleet to return to the skies. The report noted that the generator that failed had only been in service for 522 hours, and that its internal temperature had risen from 42 degrees Celsius to 102 degrees Celsius (215 degrees Fahrenheit) in the hour preceding the crash, although there was no change in operating conditions.
There were "no electrical indications that the starter/generator was heading toward a catastrophic event," reads a portion of the order (emphasis in original).
It appears this isn't the first time the department's unmanned vehicles have run into problems while flying in U.S. airspace.
"This was the [redacted] starter/generator failure since April 2013 (all customers), and there are several failure modes," reads the second released document. "A broad investigation remains ongoing — but to date there are no smoking guns."
A host of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by government-transparency advocate MuckRock related to the crash were initially denied under law-enforcement exemptions, but the orders grounding the fleet and releasing it for flight were eventually released after an appeals process.
Still, activists aren't satisfied — MuckRock is conducting a broad "drone census," in which a blitz of over 1000 information requests have been filed with both local and federal agencies attempting to establish the scope and size of unmanned aerial vehicle programs by government agencies across the country. The group and others have been particularly critical of the manner in which Customs uses its fleet — records indicate that hundreds of missions have been flown on behalf of other law-enforcement agencies.
In at least one 2012 instance in North Dakota, a Customs drone was used to provide evidence securing the conviction of a farmer who threatened police while arguing over the ownership of a handful of cows that had wandered onto his property. Activists are worried that such "mission creep" results in the drones being used against American citizens instead of sticking to their stated goal of enhancing border security.