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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 BRB29 on 4/29/2013 12:26:35 PM , Rating: 3
drugs related deaths and injury overshadow organized crime when it's illegal. What makes you think it will be better when it's legal and cheap?

Great! let's make coke legal along with every hard drugs out there. Now I'll have a bunch of lazy people on weed or some depressants. I'll walk outside and see waves of retards running around destroying everything because they think they're superman when they're just on coke or speed.

I hope you don't ever make any decisions for any country.

RE: What a waste of money
By arazok on 4/29/2013 2:31:51 PM , Rating: 2
Making it legal will still not convince many people to try it. That fact that it will ruin your life if generally enough disincentive for most.

Odds are, you would never notice that anything changed, apart from the fact that the number of gang related crimes plummeted.

RE: What a waste of money
By BRB29 on 4/29/2013 2:46:10 PM , Rating: 2
sure, in your mind

Your argument can easily be countered.

There will always be poor people. That is how the world is set up as long as there are rich people. Anyone in any class can be in gangs but it's vastly just poor folks. So you take away their source of income. They don't have enough to get by. Guess what? more prostitution and robbery. Sure, they'll stop fighting each other over territory for selling drugs. Now they'll pick more pockets and mug more people. They'll come to your house and clean you out while your high on your legal marijuana.

RE: What a waste of money
By arazok on 4/29/2013 3:32:35 PM , Rating: 2
Well, legalize prostitution and you’d have that taken care of as well. ;)

Theft could be a problem, perhaps. I’d take that over turf and drug wars any day. Perhaps we could reallocate the billions spent fighting the war on drugs to allocate more street cops in an effort to prevent real crimes?

I could also argue that breaking the cycle of drugs/jail might help more poor people get out of their situation.

RE: What a waste of money
By BRB29 on 4/30/2013 9:23:09 AM , Rating: 2
Gangs will always fight over territory. If it's not alcohol, it's drugs. If it's not drugs, it's prostitution. If it's not prostitution, it's guns. Guns are legal for practically anyone, but they still manage to do it illegally.

If South America and Central America didn't open your eyes then I don't know what will. Shakira videos are great but the vast majority of people isn't exactly having a great time.

RE: What a waste of money
By Geminiman on 4/29/2013 3:06:15 PM , Rating: 2
"drugs related deaths and injury overshadow organized crime when it's illegal. What makes you think it will be better when it's legal and cheap?"

100% FALSE. Go look at the statistics and specifically look at the date predating 1971 when drugs were legal. Your confusing data that includes deaths and injury as a result of the violence and other issues to do with high cost as a result of the prohibition with actual drug related deaths and injury.

Remember in a legal system, the product would be carefully quality controlled and the amounts would be known 100% of the time. Thus except for the "chemists" that like to mix drugs and make mistakes, no one would overdose. As for injury, most coke heads, or LSD lovers don't drive while they're on their high, and when the high is over, it's gone with little long term effect (other than nightmares for LSD users) unlike Alcohol that can last in the system for 12+ hours.

Thus by legalizing you eliminate all violent crime as a result of the drug trade, you get rid of most gangs because they only exist because of the money they make on drug sales, you eliminate a huge portion of long term prostitution because the drugs are used to keep them in the system, and you cut the cost of the drugs by 90-95% in very short order, which makes it no more onerous on your monthly paycheck than a 24 of beer and thus you can be a drug addict just as easily as an alcoholic who keeps it together, or someone that chain smokes.

ERGO: There is no downside. No increase in use, less crime, fewer cops, thus saving money, new taxes, new jobs, more productive people = win for everyone except law enforcement and the cartells.

RE: What a waste of money
By andrewaggb on 4/29/2013 3:18:59 PM , Rating: 2
it will fix some problems and create others. If hard drugs are legal then it might not be grounds to fire people. Drug tests might not be permissible.

Desperate people addicted to drugs commit all sorts of crimes. If you have any friends who are police officers they can tell you that drugs or alcohol are the leading cause of all the things they deal with.

I don't really have an answer though. The reality is people can already obtain drugs. Our current efforts aren't successful. Society may not have the money/will/etc to win a war on drugs.

Will it cost society more to deal with the increased social problems that legalizing drugs may create or will it actually save money? If drugs are legal would more people use them or would it just be safer for those who use them already? There's lots of questions. And do you legalize them all? Or just some?

Irresponsible use of alcohol has done so much damage to society. I know it's not fair to compare it to hard drugs, but I worry about a future where hard drugs could be considered socially acceptable.

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