As Drone Debate Rages, Police Move on to Million-Dollar Spy Planes

A Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre in flight.

While the nation disputes if, when and where the government should use drones over U.S. soil, Texas state police are taking their surveillance efforts to the next level.

In a little-noticed July purchase, officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety inked a $7.4 million contract with the Swiss company Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. for a high-altitude spy plane. Unique technology affixed to the state’s new aircraft could raise the ire of civil libertarians and privacy advocates.

Among its features is a $1 million array of surveillance cameras with high-resolution and thermal-imaging capabilities, and a $300,000 downlink system that enables the plane’s crew to send real-time surveillance images anywhere in the state, according to records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting through the Texas Public Information Act. The package will also come with four sets of night-vision goggles worth about $60,000, records show.

The latest fleet addition for Texas has a single engine instead of two, which saves on costs while still permitting a relatively large payload. The Pilatus cabin is also pressurized so it can fly at higher altitudes, up to 30,000 feet in the air.

Texas state police spokesman Tom Vinger said most of the plane’s missions will be carried out on the border between the United States and Mexico, and “serve as a tool in assisting specific joint operations that are clearly defined by area and duration.”

Known as the Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre (.pdf), the company says the plane was conceived specifically in response to demand from law enforcement. Authorities in Texas expect the aircraft to arrive after modifications sometime next year.

Leonard Luke, vice president of government business for Pilatus, which has operations in Colorado, said the aircraft was developed because both federal and local law enforcement “inquired about the possibility of a surveillance-type platform.”

Texas politicians have long asserted that Washington wasn’t doing enough to secure the nation’s boundary with Mexico. The Lone Star State has reportedly devoted $600 million in taxpayer money to beef up the border since 2007, according to news accounts.

No one has benefited more than the Texas Department of Public Safety, which formed military-esque Ranger Reconnaissance Teams, constructed intelligence command centers and procured high-speed gunboats with .30-caliber, fully automatic machine guns.