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Smugglers Using Large Drones to Carry Drugs Across the US-Mexico Border

Smugglers Using Large Drones to Carry Drugs Across the US-Mexico Border

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By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security

When most people hear the term “drone” in relation to the southwest border, they generally imagine one of the Predator-B unmanned aerial vehicles owned by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Small commercially available drones are becoming very popular among hobbyists, landscape photographers, and gadget geeks, but apparently they’re also being increasingly used by smugglers to sneak drugs into southern areas of border states.

Most commercial drones are relatively small and somewhat fragile—meaning that they can’t carry much more than a camera just so they can get off the ground. However, CBP reported that on August 8, Border Patrol agents arrested a 25-year-old man in possession of several pounds of methamphetamine worth $46,000. This was after agents observed a remote-controlled drone flying over the border fence at an area approximately two miles west of the San Ysidro (CA) port of entry.

Larger Drones – A ‘Nightmare Scenario’

According to Tech.co, the 2-foot tall DJI Matrice 600 drone that was seized is capable of carrying up to 33 pounds, and it hauled a 13-pound package of meth nearly 2,000 yards. Historically, smugglers have been spotty with regards to drone use because their cargo weight limitations made them logistically unviable. However, technological advancements have resulted in the construction of larger commercially available drones that can carry larger loads and are less susceptible to getting blown off course. Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said, “This is a nightmare scenario—drones with the capability to drop packages, whether they contain drugs, cell phones, weapons…all the bad things you can think of.”

Past attempts to bring drugs across the border with drones have met with mixed results. In January 2015, a drone heading towards San Ysidro with six pounds of meth crashed in the parking lot of a Tijuana supermarket. CNN reported that according to local police, the six-propeller Spreading Wings S900 model was not able to withstand the weight of the load. Of note, however, was the fact that this drone was a prototype that uses GPS to take the drone to a programmed location—negating the need for an active controller.

The TARS System

One of the tools the Border Patrol is using to combat drones is the TARS system, short for Tethered Aerostat Radar System—essentially a big white surveillance blimp. CBS News explained that six of these blimps, from Arizona to Texas, carry specialized radar that can detect aircraft flying too low for conventional radar to see. In addition to drones, the blimps can detect low-flying ultralight aircraft that quickly dump drug loads on the U.S. side of the border before heading back south. Once something is spotted, Border Patrol teams can be in the air within three minutes.

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The downside of the TARS systems is that they are extremely visible, and while they can be moved, that takes some time. Drug smugglers have considerably more logistical flexibility in comparison, and can develop a plan to fly a drone or ultralight in a zone outside the surveillance cone of a TARS unit before it can be repositioned. That being said, due to existing technological limits, the widespread use of drones by drug smugglers is still beyond the horizon. However, that doesn’t mean improved countermeasures by CBP shouldn’t be in the works.

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