WASHINGTON -- Most days, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer David Gasho sends three unmanned spy planes into the skies over the rugged Sonora Desert to hunt for drug smugglers crossing into southern Arizona from Mexico.
But in mid-June, as the largest wildfire in Arizona history raged, Gasho sent one of the Predator B drones soaring over residential neighborhoods in search of another threat -- rogue brush fires. Working from a trailer, his crew aimed an airborne infrared camera through thick smoke and spotted a smoldering blaze.
Using coordinates fed from the drone, firefighters then doused the hot spot from helicopters and watched over a secure Internet feed as the heat signature of the flames cooled.
It was the latest example of once-secret military hardware finding routine civilian uses.
Seven surveillance drones are chiefly used to help patrol America's northern and southern borders. But in recent months, they also have helped state and local authorities fight deadly fires, survey damage from floods and tornadoes and inspect dams and levees.
"People are constantly coming up and wanting a piece of that Predator pie," said Gasho, a former commercial pilot who heads the Customs and Border Protection air operations in Sierra Vista, Ariz., standing beside one of the drones at Libby Army Airfield.
Fighting the flooding
Between March and July, for example, dozens of drone missions were flown between Grand Forks, N.D., and Columbia, Mo. The Predators provided first responders and engineers with live video and radar images of widespread flooding along the Soris, Red and Missouri rivers.
Operators studying the drone feeds look for signs that a levee is bulging from pressure of floodwaters, and advise where a swollen river may first overflow its banks. Local officials can then order evacuations and direct help to vulnerable neighborhoods.
Plans call for adding three more drones later this year. But some see dangers as well as benefits in their arrival.
Scant rules for use here
Privacy experts warn that few guidelines restrict eye-in-the-sky coverage. Jay Stanley, a senior analyst on privacy and technology at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the unregulated use of drone aircraft "leaves the gates wide open for a dramatic increase in surveillance of American life."
The drones can detect all manner of activities: From its usual altitude of 20,000 feet, a drone camera can tell if a hiker eight miles away is carrying a backpack full of marijuana.
And aviation security experts worry that pilots operating drones from distant locations may not be able to see and avoid other aircraft in busy air corridors.
"The problem is safety [and] how to share airspace with manned aircraft," said Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at USC.
The Homeland Security Department's first drone crashed in 2006. When a console froze in flight, the ground-based pilot accidentally switched off the fuel line to the engine.
"This was one of these instances where he would have been better off not touching it," Gasho said. "He just panicked. Hit the button and threw away a $7 million airplane." The crash missed a residential area by 1,000 feet and brought additional scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration. It established a special board to approve airspace for use by unmanned aerial vehicles.
In emergencies, like floods and fires, the FAA will fast-track the approval process, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
"But that doesn't short-circuit any of the safety concerns," Dorr said. "We still evaluate it to make sure it can fly safely without danger to people on the ground or pilots in the air."