CNN was inside the control room in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, during a recent mission, when a control team inside a virtual cockpit operated the drones.
Flying at 18,000 feet, the drones view the landscape below, lock onto potential suspects crossing the Arizona desert, and agents on the ground move into make the arrests. But it's outrageously expensive: $28,000 for a single arrest.
That figure comes from doing the math, derived from the most recent Inspector General report on the use of drones for the Department of Homeland Security.
The report found
that operating nine drones in 2013 cost taxpayers $62.5 million. Those same nine drones are credited with apprehending just 2,272 suspects, or less than 2% of the total arrests by Customs and Border Protection in the area the drones operate.
In its first eight years of operations, the CBT drone program has cost $360 million.
The drones are exactly like the ones used by the military in operations across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other battle zone countries, except there are no missiles on board.
But the sophisticated equipment is also temperamental. The drones are sensitive to weather. They're also grounded about 80% of the time because of budget issues, according to the Inspector General. The report also says the drones only patrol 170 miles of the 1,993 mile border.
Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, runs the program, and hey says while the program needs improvements, it's a mistake to only view the drones' success in terms of arrests.
He says the drones give them a big picture of the border, what he calls "domain awareness."
"We could never see the border in the same way we could before we got these ..." adding the information received by the drones is invaluable to agents on the ground. Alles also says in 2013, the arrests by drone brought in $66,000 per hour of contraband seizures.
Inspector General John Roth says while the drones do contribute to overall border security, Customs hasn't "put any measurements in place as to whether it's effective; the measurements we saw show that in fact it's not effective."
Alles says he doesn't want any more drones until he can prove the program works at every level. Then, perhaps, he will be comfortable with acquiring more of them. But there are longterm plans circulating from Republican and Democratic supporters of the drones to buy more and have them constantly in the air.