The political fire and brimstone associated with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has obscured two key facts. The first is that physical barriers of the right kind in the right places can play a major role in curbing illegal movements of people and stuff across the southern U.S. border. Fences (with parallel roads) are appropriate where there are large population centers close to the border. Such barriers reduce the rate of attempted crossings and increase the response time available to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. For example, a 14-mile stretch of double and even triple fencing between San Diego and Tijuana reduced the rate of attempted crossings by about 95 percent. Yes, those seeking to cross do go elsewhere, but those other areas generally are more difficult to transit and there is greater space and time in which to detect and apprehend them by other means.
The second fact is that improvements in land-oriented border security must be matched with enhanced aerial surveillance and response capabilities. Investments in physical barriers even with additional ground-based sensors and more CBP agents can be effective for some portions of the border, and for some problems, particularly illegal immigration. It is less effective, or more accurately, inadequate when it comes to drug smuggling. The value of illegal drugs is so high that traffickers have found it worthwhile to send aircraft and boats on one-way missions if they can deliver a large enough shipment. But even platforms with small payloads can be worth it if they readily evade detection.
CBP already spends a lot of effort on the detection, tracking and interception of aircraft, boats and even semi-submersibles (the latter two with the able assistance of the U.S. Navy). CBP employs a combination of radars, both land-based and carried aloft aboard aerostats, manned aircraft and even spotters on the ground to detect efforts to illegally cross the border by air.
Drug smugglers are always looking for new ways to move their product into the United States that foil our attempts to intercept them. So it should come as no surprise that they have grabbed onto drones to further their enterprise. In January, CBP agents from the Yuma Station visually detected an illegal night time border crossing by an octocopter-type drone. This unmanned aerial vehicle dropped three packages on the U.S. side of the border before returning to Mexico which, when the agents recovered them, turned out to be, in total, 30 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $15,000.
Octocopters are relatively simple drones which are powered, as the name suggests, by eight rotors on the same number of extendable arms that can be folded down to allow for extremely easy transport to a launch site. They can be flown autonomously using predetermined navigation waypoints or GPS coordinates, or flown manually using a hand-held controller which receives video feeds from an onboard camera. They come in various sizes with payloads that range accordingly from a few pounds up to more than 50 pounds. Oh yes, you can buy a complete system on the Internet for as little as $2,000, although the price goes up as the size of the drone and associated payload increases.
Octocopters and similarly sized drones are great for smuggling operations. They fly extremely low and slow, are quiet and are particularly hard to see at night. As a result, they are almost impossible to detect by conventional means. Even the smaller variants of an octocopter can make several trips in one night, more than paying for themselves. CBP’s successful detection of an octocopter was a lucky accident. Moreover, that event suggests that there are probably a lot of drones crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every night.
Effective border control will require investing in means to detect and track drones operated by smugglers. Fortunately, CBP apparently has decided to make an initial investment in such a capability. The Israeli company ELTA has built and tested a lightweight Man-portable Aerial Radar System (MARS), which can detect extremely low-flying aerial vehicles, including small drones. Carried in two backpacks, MARS can be deployed virtually anywhere along the border including regions where ground-based radar cannot see. Not only can MARS detect low, slow flying and small platforms, it can pinpoint the locations where payloads are delivered. This information can be transmitted to CBP’s operations centers and even to agents in the field. Because the system is highly mobile, it can be moved frequently, countering the adversaries’ efforts to game the border surveillance network.
CBP needs to deploy drone-detecting radars now. The problem will only get worse as the technology evolves and better, larger and more capable systems are built and sold commercially. But placing MARS at likely drone crossing points is a good start.
Find Archived Articles: