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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: Ya, that will work....
By drlumen on 4/29/2013 12:22:29 PM , Rating: 2
In the short term it could be really bad with drugs like cocaine to be made legal. However, kids walking down the street seeing junkie after junkie dead or dieing would serve as a helluva deterrent to doing drugs. Probably much better than any type of drug education currently taught in the schools.

Also, as cold as it may sound, when the addicts start dieing off the percentage of habitual drug users will decrease - simply by attrition.

Those that want to try drugs will do so. Currently, there is nothing from stopping them. It's not like these drugs aren't already out on the streets.

I too believe all drugs should be made legal and accessible. The only drugs that give me pause are antibiotics and antivirals. If misused those could cause global health problems.

RE: Ya, that will work....
By Geminiman on 4/29/2013 1:57:57 PM , Rating: 2
1. There would be no increase in drug use even in the short term. Every country that has legalized has seen no increase, and there was no decrease when they were made illegal. NONE. Thus your statements are just silly.

2. Antibiotics are already being abused by people that should know better (thus making them ineffectual). How exactly would it have been any worse if the general public had direct access? The assumption that "really smart people" know better how to manage your life than you do, is the problem folks! Only you know what's right for you and it's no one else's business until you harm another or their property.

RE: Ya, that will work....
By BRB29 on 4/30/2013 12:13:36 PM , Rating: 2
Im pretty sure you are confusing decriminalizing drugs with legalizing drugs. No country has ever legalized drugs. All not give you a criminal offense. They bring you in front of a commission with a doctor and lawyer to decide what to do with you. The choices are treatment, no sanction, or small fine. However, if you were caught selling/distributing drugs then it is still a criminal offense.

What that does is give people a chance to get help and not ruin your future with a criminal history. That works, legalizing drugs does not and no country to this day has done it.

In a way, the US has already done this. There's plenty of people that was caught doing illegal drugs and get sent to court. Some judge will grant them the chance to go to rehab, do community service and stay on probation for a while to rebuild their life. Some judges tell them if they stay clean and join the military then all charges will be dropped. I've met plenty of people in both circumstances. Some just go straight back to their habits and others lead a better life and thankful for the chance.

RE: Ya, that will work....
By Skywalker123 on 4/30/2013 5:11:06 PM , Rating: 2
drug use has been cut in half since decriminalization in Portugal

RE: Ya, that will work....
By BRB29 on 5/1/2013 8:29:28 AM , Rating: 2
Do you know the difference between decriminalizing and legalizing?

Decriminalizing = Users found with less than 10 days worth of drugs are not charged. However, they are still taken in to stand trial in front of a commission(judge, lawyer, doctor) to decide your fate. This gives addicts a chance for rehab. BUT SELLING, TRAFFICKING, DISTRIBUTION, GROWING, OWNING MORE THAN 10 DAYS WORTH OF DRUGS IS STILL ILLEGAL AND ALL CHARGES ARE STILL IN EFFECT.

Legalizing = You can buy, sell, distribute, grow etc... whatever drug they legalize.

The difference is night and day. Please actually read the article before making yourself look stupid.

RE: Ya, that will work....
By ritualm on 5/2/2013 1:34:26 PM , Rating: 2
Do you know the difference between decriminalizing and legalizing?

Either you don't know at all, or you choose to be corrosively ignorant over it while accusing the rest of us for being stupid.

Legalizing recreational drugs will not increase use of those drugs and addiction rates. Keeping them illegal, however, do. You're arguing in favor of keeping them banned forever, and then complain why we keep having people kill each other left and right over them.

You're the reason 9/11 happened at all - you don't connect the dots and use the lump that sits three feet above your love hammer for a change.


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