The newest concern for border patrol agents isn’t a new and dangerous army of terrorists or another new method for illegal immigrants to cross the border, but the dawn of a new strategy that has been used to smuggle drugs into the country. Agents were alerted to this potential problem after the arrest of Jose Edwin Rivera, a United States citizen near the border of Mexico in San Ysidro who was caught with more than 13 pounds of methamphetamine that has a street value of over $46,000. The offending smuggler responsible for carrying the stash: a DJI Matrice 600, a.k.a. a popular hexacopter, or a drone.
It seems that the drone in use for the questionable activities is a new and highly sophisticated model of drones designed for use in the cinema industry where it’s nearly silent flight and incredible stability can shoot aerial film and photography with smooth focus and ease. It is ready to use within minutes and is highly customizable for even more specific uses. The drone can carry a sizeable camera and is able to withstand magnetic interference from metal structures. Other notable features of the DJI Matrice 600 include its ability for smooth and stable flight for up for up to 36 minutes at speeds of around 40mph, a reliable engine that can recover itself and safely land if a motor fails, its ability to carry a 13.2lb payload, and of course, its $4,995 price tag.
These stealth flying machines typically fly low enough to the ground to avoid detection by radar, one of the reasons why Border Patrol has had to begin the use of a new sophisticated system of their own known as TARS. It stands for Tethered Aerostat Radar System and involves the use of six blimps situated across the US–Mexico border which carry specialized radar that detects any low flying aircraft that is below conventional radar detection. Agents say that once an unidentified aircraft is detected, border patrol teams can be in the air within three minutes to respond. While this is certainly quite impressive, the continual advancements in drone technology may prove to be a challenging aspect of combating this kind of drug trafficking especially at the border where agents already have their hands full with criminal activity on land.
The recent drug arrest in San Ysidro is the first officially confirmed case of drug smuggling by drone in San Diego county although the Department of Homeland Security has been aware of the potential threat since sometime in 2014 when drones began making an appearance on the horizon. The TARS system which is currently the best defense that the Border and Customs Patrol has to detect and intercept drug smuggling drones, has limitations which make it an inferior opponent. The most obvious drawback is that the blimps are large and cumbersome while drones are already quite stealth, compact in size, and becoming capable of even greater precision and accuracy.
With many new drones on the way in the industry of drone technology, the question of how serious the border patrols concerns are and how adequate its responses will be. In the meantime, we can expect that drug cartels will be on the heels (or rather the wings) of the next creative and resourceful way to get past authorities.