Tiny robots to prowl US-Mexico border's dark drug tunnels

Border patrol is unleashing a fleet of ultra-maneuverable, pint-sized robots to explore the growing number of drug tunnels beneath the US-Mexico border.

Brian Skoloff/AP
US border patrol Agent Ryan Grimm demonstrates how a robot is used to navigate a drainage canal along the border fence during a briefing in Nogales, Ariz., Tuesday.

The nation's increasingly high-tech battle against drug smuggling along the Southwest border just got another ally: a wireless, compact, camera-equipped robot.

Although the military for years has relied on robots for reconnaissance in conflict zones, the technology is fairly new on the US-Mexico border, where reinforced land, air and water surveillance has sent traffickers underground.

Since 1990, authorities have discovered 168 tunnels in Arizona and California used mostly to smuggle drugs. More than half were dug up along the border stretch in Nogales, Ariz., where covert diggers often breach an underground flood-control system to enter the US.

"We've found all types of contraband in Nogales," border patrol Agent Kevin Hecht says. "We've had marijuana, we've had cocaine, we've had heroine, we've had some meth."

The underground gadgets add to the border's growing collection of virtual surveillance tools that the federal government has bolstered in recent years, including camera towers, unmanned aerial drones, and a variety of wireless technologies.

In fact, the remote-controlled robot can transform into a terrestrial drone outfitted with a 12-gauge shotgun, but Agent Hecht says that feature won't be activated.

"That is not an option we needed right now," says Hecht, who notes that armed agents work to detect tunnels.

The small robot will make the job of agents who crawl into dark passageways more efficient, because they can be sent ahead to detect any potential threats, he adds.

"Once you determine there's no threats and it's safe for the agent to make entry, then the agent can clear the tunnel and investigate further beyond what the robot was able to do."

The military-grade Pointman Tactical Robot is only 19 inches wide and can flip, negotiate rough terrain, and climb stairs.

"Predominantly SWAT teams use them to get a look inside buildings before they enter," says Alex Kaufman, who works for Applied Research Associates, Inc., of Albuquerque, N.M., which sells the robot.

The robot's range and mobility will allow it to be more effective than the tethered robots currently used in the sometimes rudimentary, sometimes elaborate tunnels found along the border, he says.

Agents can control the robot for greater distances and "the fact that it's on wheels instead of tracks makes it easier to maneuver," he adds.

Hecht says the Pointman bested other robots he has tested in the tunnels. "Every robot I've tested to date has gone about 10 feet into a corrugated pipe and lost control," he adds. "These have gone through all the pipes without any problem."

Although dozens of agents undergo training to work in confined spaces, only some 12 agents regularly venture underground, he says. The two new robots will enable agents to speed up tunnel probes, says border patrol Agent Ryan Grimm, who showed off the agency's two new robots this week.

Normally, it takes three agents about an hour to monitor the air quality, structural soundness, and other conditions inside a passageway, he adds.

"Now we have a robot that's equipped with infrared and regular lighting so that you can go into these spaces," Agent Grimm says. "By myself, I can bring this robot down here and explore all of these tunnels within 20 to 30 minutes."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Tiny robots to prowl US-Mexico border's dark drug tunnels
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today