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U.S. Navy is looking to use drones to cut cost of patrolling seas

The Caribbean is a major route via which cocaine enters the U.S., as well as being a major secondary route for marijuana and other drugs.  A 2004 report by Caribbean local outpost of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime the Caribbean drug trade commands around $5B USD in annual revenue and accounts for around 125-170 of the pure metric tons of cocaine entry North America, or around 50 percent of it.

To date the U.S. has largely relied on Coast Guard and naval patrols to try to spot and intercept the drug smugglers.  Now its going high tech, adopting an armada of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  The initial deployment involves testing an unmanned aerostat (blimp) named "Aerostar" and RQ-20 Puma hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles aboard the High Speed Vessel Swift, a 321-foot vessel in the Fourth fleet.

I. Meet Aerostar

Both Puma and the Aerostar have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now the military is putting them to use in another one of the nation's long-standing and costly wars -- the war on drugs.

North Dakota-based U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contractor Raven Industries produces the helium-filled floater.  Raven Industries prefers the term "Aerostat" to blimp to avoid any sort of trademark conflicts.  It cruises at 2,000 feet.

Unofficially dubbed "The Eye in the Sky" or "The Floating Eye" by servicemen, the DOD has already brought home some of these fliers for use with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in their work policing the Mexican border.

The Navy tests its new Aerostar floater. [Image Source: AP]

The Aerostar is typically will be equipped with the "Kestrel" wide-area scanning sensor from Logos Technologies and the Wescam sensor from L-3 Communications, which provides narrower range multi-imaging.  It has an effective scanning range of about 50 miles at altitude -- nearly ten times the visibility of a the Navy surface craft.

II. Meet Puma

The Puma is produced by AeroVironment, Inc. (AVAV) a Monrovia, Calif.-based UAV maker.  With a range of 9 miles/2 hours it serves a companion role, giving a "God's eye view" of potential targets spotted by Aerostar.  Its electrooptical and infrared cameras offer close-up inspection of targets, while its 13-pound frame makes for easy hand launches.  

Caribbean PUMA
A Puma test launch aboard the Swift [Image Source: AP]

Puma fliers travel between 23 and 52 mph.  The craft is driven by a small propeller, powered by onboard lithium-ion batteries.

Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris tries his hand at a Puma launch [Image Source: AP]

The Puma joins the CBP's Predator drones in patrolling the Caribbean; two of the CBP's ten domestic Predator drones patrol that region.  It also joins Air Force jets and other aircraft, which regularly do flyovers of the region on patrol.

The U.S. Navy has begun testing both fliers last week.  Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, commander of the Navy's 4th Fleet, says this is the first time that UAVs have been used in Caribbean drug patrols.

Not all went smoothly.  The Puma on its first return at a press demo plunged into the ocean and had to be retrieved -- fortunately it floats.  A second launch saw a landing on deck.

III. Sequester Ends Martillo, but UAVs to Continue the "War on Drugs"

The use of drones so closed to the U.S. homeland will doubtless raise concerns about domestic surveillance, particularly given that Florida just passed a law banning most forms of warrantless drone surveillance over its airspace.  However, the Navy drones will be presumably used exclusively over international waters.  And these are small, unarmed drones, unlike the larger Predator drones that the CBP uses -- drones that could potentially be armed.

The Navy is looking to UAVs and smaller, faster craft to handle drug enforcement needs amid budget cuts from the sequester.  Last year The Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Thach (FFG 43), USS Gary (FFG 51), and guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas (FFG 47) were deployed in the region on a special mission dubbed Operation Martillo ("martillo" means hammer in Spanish).  

The operation was a relative success -- according to naval sources it seized 160 tons ($4B worth) of cocaine, valued at $12B USD in street resale value; 25,000 pounds of marijuana, worth more than $10M USD on the streets; and $3.5M USD in cash were seized.  

Cocaine seized
The sequester is ending Op. Martillo ("hammer"), a sting that nabbed 160 tons of cocaine.
[Image Source: AP]

However, the sequester effectively ended Martillo and its deployment of larger ships to traffick the Caribbean.  The sequestration is slashing $4B USD from the Navy budget.  A frigate costs only around $25M USD to operate a year [source].  Crew costs can be around $2.1M USD for the complement of 21 officers onboard and around $4.6M USD for the complement of 190 enlisted naval servicemen [source].  Given these relatively low costs it's somewhat unclear why the Navy chose to cut this mission given Martillo's success, but the UAVs will certainly help save costs.

Source: AP (on PhysOrg)

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RE: What a waste of money
By Cheesew1z69 on 4/29/2013 10:20:09 AM , Rating: 2
We don't know what the effect would have been if there wasn't an active "War on Drugs".
Countless lives lost fighting it?

RE: What a waste of money
By Cheesew1z69 on 4/29/2013 10:25:55 AM , Rating: 2
I meant to say, countless lived saved from not fighting it.

RE: What a waste of money
By BRB29 on 4/29/2013 10:48:07 AM , Rating: 2
For such operations like these. When you succeed then people's lives are not disrupted and therefore nothing is observed. When you fail, then something significant happens.

If 160 tons of coke made it to the streets of US then I'm pretty sure you see a significant rise in drug problems. Cheap drugs and wide availability actually has a strong correlation to drug abuse everywhere.

A great example is what happened with China with opium.

RE: What a waste of money
By Geminiman on 4/29/2013 2:56:14 PM , Rating: 1
Sorry but no. The US was like that for the first 150 years of it's existence and there wasn't a drug problem. In fact there was less drug use than there is today.

You know what increased drug use? Welfare programs and wealth transfer from the rich to the poor people that didn't work to earn their money.

Your arguments have been proven false. Every country to legalize drugs end up with 50+% less violent crime, and no increase in use and gets to fire a ton of cops. Only the cops oppose the policy and going further, because they know that the vast majority of cops wouldn't be needed if drugs were legalized.

You really need to educate yourself on the subject. Your statements are based on horrible ignorance.

RE: What a waste of money
By StevoLincolnite on 4/29/2013 7:32:43 PM , Rating: 3
There is a reason why the Opium Wars happened and it wasn't because drugs benefited an entire society.

Those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it again.

Now, substance abuse itself has been recognized by the Australian Bureau of statistics to cause an increase in addictions, depression, violence, suicide, schizophrenia and an entire host of other mental issues.

Do you really want such things around your children? Sure you will never actually stop drugs, but you can certainly reduce it, hence reducing the chances for those who will potentially use it, become addicted and thus destroy their life.
Those are then people who become reliant on the welfare system, don't pay taxes and cost the country more.

RE: What a waste of money
By BRB29 on 4/30/2013 12:32:14 PM , Rating: 2
Where are you getting this info from? No country had legalized drugs. They only decriminalized it for users. Selling is still illegal.
The users still gets taken in but does not hit their criminal history.

RE: What a waste of money
By 91TTZ on 4/29/2013 4:42:04 PM , Rating: 2
Please stop posting. You spout idiocy in every thread you post in. After I raped your lackluster thought process in other threads you simply vanish and move on to pollute new ones.

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