CBP puts $100M into sensors to track drug smugglers flying ultralights

Customs and Border Protection is spending just shy of $100 million on a sensor system to combat a growing problem — the use of ultralight aircraft to smuggle drugs across the border from Mexico.

CBP, a component of the Homeland Security Department, recently awarded a contract (totaling $99,955,087) for the system to SRCTec, a research and development company that, among other things, makes radar and sensor systems.

The new system is intended to be used both at CBP border stations as well as in remote locations where sensors will operate without direct electrical power.

The target is ultralight planes — small, inexpensive aircraft weighing a few hundred pounds that can be put together in a garage and don’t require a pilot’s license to fly. They travel slowly, fly low under the range of traditional radar, and have become a favored way for drug smugglers to transport their cargo, about 150 to 250 pounds at a time.

CBP’s solicitation outlined a system that could detect small aircraft within a range of 33 to 15,000 feet in altitude with a detection range of up to 20 kilometers, and able to track up to 25 aircraft at a time. The speed range for detection was set at 24 knots (about 27.6 mph) to at least 55 knots and potentially as fast as 150 knots (roughly 172.6 mph). Ultralights generally have a top speed of about 60 mph.

The system would be able to operate in flat or mountainous terrain and in extreme weather conditions (40 degrees below zero to 125 Fahrenheit, and in 100 percent humidity), according to the solicitation, and be easy to move and set up, requiring no more than three hours to unpack and establish a communications link.

Sensors placed in the hills and other remote locations would have to work for up to 96 hours. Others would be operated at CBP facilities along the southwestern border.

SRCTec’s website describes its VantagePoint system as a rugged, easily transported system that can be set up within hours and “delivers complete 360 degree, short and long range ground and air surveillance, and communicates remotely with command and control systems via satellite.”

Although CBP’s contract award doesn’t specify a product, the solicitation did say the agency wanted existing technology rather than developing something new.

VantagePoint can detect and track “low and slow aircraft,” as well as people and ground vehicles and it “provides target identification through camera and IFF [Identification Friend or Foe] interrogation,” the company’s website says.

And if smugglers switch from ultralights to drones, SRCTec says VantagePoint can be configured to deliver “electronic negation capabilities” against unmanned aircraft.

The use of ultralights by drug cartels has been seen as a growing threat for years. The Los Angeles Times in May 2011 reported that ultralights had crossed the border illegally 228 times in the previous fiscal year.

The last piece of legislation sponsored by former Rep. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who resigned from Congress after being shot in January 2011, was the Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act, which strengthened rules against using the craft for drug smuggling and eventually became law in February.

The law also broadens the definition of aircraft to include ultralights so smugglers would face the same penalties as they would using other aircraft under the Tariff Act of 1930.

CBP has been experimenting with different technologies along the southwestern border, including testing a former military aerostat for surveillance and using an avatar kiosk that uses voice recognition and anomaly detection to determine if someone is lying.

 

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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