Share This Page

Aerial tools could help U.S. combat smuggling

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

ABOARD THE HIGH SPEED VESSEL SWIFT — Drug smugglers who race across the Caribbean in speedboats 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-winning tactic in the future. The 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 federal 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 aerostat, formally the Aerostar TIF-25K and 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 five miles to about 50 miles. That can help teams in an on-board control center to identify larger ships, which now would appear as just dots on the horizon, from as far as 15 miles away.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.