Nation/World

High-in-the-sky plan to track smugglers

ABOARD THE HIGH-SPEED VESSEL SWIFT – Drug smugglers who race across the Caribbean in speedboats will typically jettison their cargo when spotted by surveillance aircraft, hoping any chance of prosecuting them will vanish with the drugs sinking to the bottom of the sea.

That may be a less-successful tactic in the future. The U.S. Navy on Friday began testing two new aerial tools, borrowed from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, that officials say will make it easier to detect, track and videotape drug smugglers in action.

One of the devices on display aboard the High-Speed Vessel Swift is a large, white balloon-like craft known as an aerostat, which is tethered up to 2,000 feet above the ship’s stern. The other tool on board for tests in the Florida Straits is a type of drone that can be launched by hand from the deck.

Together, they expand the ability of Navy and Coast Guard personnel to see what’s beyond their horizon, according to officials from both military branches and the contractors hoping to sell the devices to the U.S. government.

The devices should allow authorities to detect and monitor suspected drug shipments from afar for longer sustained periods, giving them a better chance of stopping the smugglers. They also should allow them to make continuous videotapes that can be used in prosecutions.

“Being able to see them and watch what they are doing even before we get there is going to give us an edge,” said Chief Chris Sinclair, assistant officer in charge of a law enforcement detachment on board the Swift, a private vessel leased to the Navy that is about to begin a monthlong deployment to the southwestern Caribbean, tracking the busy smuggling routes off Colombia and Honduras.

Crews practiced launching and operating both systems before a small contingent of news media on board the Swift, managing to bring back video of vessels participating in a mock surveillance mission as well as radar and video images of the fishing charters and sailboats that dot the choppy seas separating Cuba from the U.S. mainland.

The drone, officially a Puma All Environment unmanned aircraft system from AeroVironment Inc. of Simi Valley, Calif., splashed into the water on one landing and had to be retrieved. On the second round, it clacked noisily but intact on the shifting deck of the 321-foot ship. Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, commander of the Navy’s 4th Fleet, said the devices are necessary at a time when the service is making a transition to smaller, faster ships amid budget cuts.

The aerostat, formally the Aerostar TIF-25K made by a division of Raven Industries Inc. of Sioux Falls, S.D., is filled with helium. It’s an old technology, models of which have been used for decades, but it’s packed with cameras and sensors that expand the ship’s radar capability from about 5 miles to about 50 miles. That can help teams in an on-board control center identify larger ships, which now would appear as just dots on the horizon, from as far as 15 miles away.

The Puma, meanwhile, can be sent out to inspect a vessel flagged by the larger aerostat.

Both the aerostat and the drone have been used widely by the U.S. government for overseas actions, but Harris said neither has been used before by the Navy to conduct counter-drug operations.

Unmanned aerial devices, however, are not new to the drug fight. U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates 10 Predator drones.



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