US government agencies are still investigating the crash of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) owned by the Mexican government in an El Paso, Texas residential neighbourhood last week.

The single-engine Orbiter Mini UAV, built by Israeli firm Aeronautics Defense Systems, was on a mission when a mechanical problem forced it down, Mexican officials say. While no information on the mission is available, El Paso is just over the US-Mexico border from Ciudad Juarez, the epicentre of violence between rival drug cratels battling for control over smuggling and drug trafficking routes.

US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, got a call from a concerned citizen 14 December, sent agents into the field to locate and retrieve the catapult-launched aircraft. It was returned to the Mexican government by 16 December, CBP officials say.

The US National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the crash. "We are not looking at why it was where it was," NTSB officials say. "Our focus is purely on the safety issues." The US government is still studying the safety implications of permitting UAVs in the national airspace for routine missions.

Developed for the Israel Defence Forces, the Orbiter MUAV is primarily used for over-the-hill reconnaissance missions and other short-range intelligence and surveillance. It can carry a 1.3kg (3.3lbs) payload at altitudes of up to 18,000ft on missions as long as 4h. In 2009, the Mexican government signed a $22 million deal with Aeronautics Defense Systems for the Orbiter system.

Since teaming with AAI, a division of Textron, to market the small UAV in the US and to select international customers, in September 2009, it is also used by the Serbian army, Poland, Ireland and Azerbaijan.

CBP also operates the much larger Predator UAV, built by General Atomics, along the border.

Source: Flight International