Tunnels, Catapults, Magnets and Drones


Bajadock: Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, announced a new San Diego Drone Task Force.  This new Drone Task Force is formed as a response to the failed drone drug shipment in Tijuana this week. The Dronies will have an annual budget of $625 billion.  The Dronies’ mission is to Locate, Identify, Engage and Neutralize multi rotor devices at the U.S. border.  There has not yet been a decision to have multi rotor devices enter the SENTRI inspection program.

UT San Diego

Drug smugglers at the U.S. border with Mexico are taking their first uncertain steps into the fast-evolving world of airborne robotics, as U.S. authorities rush to address a new vulnerability.

A small drone crashed Tuesday evening at a Tijuana shopping mall a short distance from the San Ysidro border crossing. Strapped to its underside were six packets of methamphetamine weighing about seven pounds.

Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said agency officials in San Diego have been preparing for drone smuggling for six months after receiving a tip that drug traffickers might try out the technology.

“It’s the newest threat and vulnerability that we’re facing because they’re very difficult to detect,” she said.

She declined to discuss what tools U.S. authorities have at their disposal to deal with small drones.

“We’re trying to make sure this doesn’t become a bigger problem,” Mack said. “This is the first we’ve seen of it, and it did not succeed and that is good news.”

U.S. customs officials have yet to intercept any drones smuggling narcotics across U.S. borders, and the Drug Enforcement Administration said the technique is unlikely to be very profitable.

Over the years, drug smugglers have surmounted border fences and patrols with everything from slingshots to ultralight aircraft. They have burrowed underground tunnels between warehouses and installed railways and ventilation systems.

Drugs have been swallowed in capsules and surgically packed inside pets, and at border crossings, drugs are frequently hidden in secret compartments within vehicles.

In another new twist, drug smugglers this year have targeted cars and drivers with access to the SENTRI trusted traveler lanes at San Ysidro by placing containers with powerful magnets under their vehicles, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

Smugglers apparently then recovered the illegal cargo far from the view of border authorities in the United States. Police seized about 13 pounds of heroin from underneath one vehicle this month after its driver spotted the magnetic containers while filling up for gas in the United States.

Advances in drone technology that have helped sell more than a million drones in recent years to hobbyists and some businesses could prove difficult to trace or intercept at the border.

Matt Maziarz, an editor at MultiRotor Pilot and Fly RC magazines, said the remote control device that crashed in Tijuana could easily be equipped to carry a payload as large as a 12-pound video camera.

Flight times can be stretched up to an hour, and drones can be piloted as far as five miles as pilots watch for obstacles through an onboard camera — despite guidelines by the Federal Aviation Administration limiting flights to line of sight.

Sophisticated programmers have equipped drones to navigate by pre-set GPS coordinates, he said.

“It will literally pop up a Google map, and you can pinpoint where the thing goes,” Maziarz said.

Those features are earning drones a starring role in everything from search and rescue operations to mending fences on vast farms, said Maziarz, who laments the use of the technology by criminals.

He said news of the smuggling attempt in Tijuana touched off a flurry of online discussions among afficionados of “multi-rotor” devices, who shun the word “drone” because of its military association.

Law enforcement can’t yet hack into drones, he contends, because remote control transmitters and receivers now hop between frequencies every millisecond.

“With the drones or with RC (radio controlled) aircraft there’s not much they can do without following it to wherever it goes or shooting it out of the sky,” he said.

In Tijuana, where the drone fell Tuesday night, the city government has purchased drones to evaluate traffic accidents, detect landslides and control wildfires.

Attorney John Davidson of St. Louis has been blogging about the potential for smuggling by unpiloted aircraft for several years.

Drug cartels are almost certain to move into the technology as it becomes cheaper, considering past smuggling attempts using manned aircraft and crudely built submarines, he said. Drones that can be programmed to navigate on their own may be irresistible.

“What people are interested in is avoiding getting caught,” he said. “They’re going to start thinking, ‘Do I send four or five at once?’”


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