EL PASO — The federal government has grounded the fleet of Predator drones that patrol the Southwest after one of the unmanned aircraft crash-landed in the ocean 20 miles southwest of San Diego.
"While on patrol off the Southern California coast, the unmanned aircraft — a maritime variant of the Predator B — experienced a mechanical failure," according to a written statement from Michael Friel, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.
The Texas-based flight crew landed the malfunctioning drone in the sea rather than try to fly it back to its home base in Arizona.
"There were no injuries as a result of this emergency landing," Friel said.
"Pretty obviously the reason they had to take it down in the ocean was so it did not have a risk of crashing into an inhabited area," said Josiah Heyman, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Heyman and other critics question the increasing use of drones over U.S. airspace.
"Drones are used for monitoring empty/enemy territory. In fact, there are 12 million people living in border communities in the United States," Heyman said.
Since the crash landing, the nine remaining drones have stopped surveillance flights over the border region.
In a statement, CPB said the drone fleet involved in border security operations has been grounded "out of an abundance of caution."
The NTSB and FAA are investigating the cause of the mechanical failure that led the federal government to halt border drone flights for now.
CBP says the Predator B armed with surveillance equipment helps Border Patrol agents on the ground respond to violations.
Each unmanned aircraft costs at least $12 million. This is the second Predator B to be lost in a crash.
One slammed into a hillside near Nogales, Arizona in 2006. In that accident, the NTSB found operator error was to blame.
The federal government plans to add more Predator Bs to the Customs and Border Protection fleet in coming years.
"We really need to question is there a technological magic bullet?" Heyman asked.