When 1st Lt. Austin Laughlin started on Operation Lone Star, the mission was daunting. He and his company were responsible for preventing illegal border crossings in a 25-miles stretch along the Rio Grande River in Zapata County. While the county wasn’t known for particularly high traffic, it was known for being undermanned in its vast expanses of thick over growth that provide a perfect route for those travelers who want to remain undetected.
One tactic for finding the clandestine migrants, developed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, was the use of drones in conjunction with groups of elite soldiers from the Texas National Guard, called “brush teams.” The brush teams would use the information provided from the DPS unmanned aircraft equipped with night vision and thermal cameras to locate and arrest trespassing migrants in the unforgiving terrain.
Seeing the success of the joint brush team operations, Laughlin knew more drones would mean more illegal migrants would be unable to enter Texas undetected.
Laughlin quickly developed a plan that would have Texas Guardsmen flying drones as part of Operation Lone Star. He pitched the idea to the commanders on the ground, who immediately saw the value in adding additional brush teams resourced with drones and championed the young lieutenant’s idea to the highest echelons of the agency.
With that the Texas Military Department’s Small Unmanned Aircraft System Program was born. In his new position as the program’s training director, Laughlin said the first class of TMD pilots are set to start training to fly. After completing the FAA’s part 107 training and additional practical training with both TMD and DPS personnel, those Soldiers and Airmen will be able to fly with the agency and as commercial drone pilots in their civilian lives. The new remote aviators will be chosen from within the Texas National Guard’s ranks.
“We are looking for people that are on a State Active Duty mission currently, or want to be,” said Laughlin. “We want people who want to make a difference.”
In response to the increase in illegal border traffic, TMD is preparing to train 45 new drone pilots. While those pilots will initially work directly with DPS, Laughlin said that eventually the drones will be spread out, working independently to expand the number of brush teams across the border.
“It’s important that we are successful on Operation Lone Star,” Laughlin said. “With this program we can better stop the people with nefarious intent from crossing illegally into Texas”