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Customs drones grounded after Predator ditched off California

Drones used to monitor U.S. borders and ports have been grounded after an operator ditched one of the unmanned aircraft off the California coast due to a mechanical failure.

The Customs and Border Protection craft went into the Pacific Ocean at about 11:15 p.m. local time around 20 miles southwest of San Diego, Michael Friel, an agency spokesman, said in an email Tuesday.

The crew piloting the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator B, modified for operation in maritime environments, put it into the water after determining it couldn't reach its home base in Sierra Vista, Arizona, Friel said.

"The cause of the failure is unknown," he said. "There were no injuries as a result of this emergency landing."

The accident comes as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is working on standards to safely integrate unmanned aircraft for commercial use into the nation's airways. It has approved six test sites for civilian drone development.

The Predator B, also known as the MQ-9 Reaper in the U.S. Air Force, can fly as many as 27 hours and reach an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), according to the website of Poway-based General Atomics. It has a wingspan of 66 feet (20 meters) and can carry more than 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms) of cameras, weapons or other payload, according to the company.

CBP uses unmanned aircraft to patrol both coasts and the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman, said in an interview. The agency had 10 of the unmanned planes, including the one that crashed, Burke said.

The agency notified the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board about the accident.

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