There’s a new sheriff in town

One of my favorite scenes in Blazing Saddles is when Cleavon Little is riding into town to become the new Sheriff of Rockridge.  In many ways that movie broke down racial barriers through its comedic genius.  The question I ask today, is if we need a movie to make the police and citizens trust robots.

Earlier this week CNN reported that a smuggler’s drone flying from Mexico crash-landed just south of the U.S. border city of San Ysidro, California, in a failed drug delivery this week, Tijuana Municipal Police said.  The incident showed that smugglers aren’t just going underground anymore — using tunnels beneath the U.S.-Mexico border to transport drugs and migrants.  Now, the smugglers are trying to do business using unmanned aerial vehicles.


“To date, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not intercepted any drones smuggling narcotics across the borders into the United States,” said Alberto Vallina, supervisory Border Patrol agent in San Diego. “In collaboration with our federal, state, local and international law enforcement partners, CBP remains vigilant against emerging trends and ever-changing tactics employed by transnational criminal organizations behind illegal attempts to smuggle narcotics into the U.S.”

The drone was loaded with more than six pounds of the synthetic drug crystal meth, Tijuana police said.  “In San Diego, the street value, at last account, for a six-pound load would be about $48,000,” DEA Special Agent Matt Barden said. “Once you get it across the border, that stuff’s like gold.”

Drones are emerging as the latest technological gadget used by cartels and smugglers in trying to outfox border authorities. The crashed drone was a prototype that used a global positioning system, or GPS, to send it to a particular destination, Tijuana police said on the department’s Facebook page.

“The cartels have been using drones for surveillance. Transporting drugs is a bit more complicated,” said Sylvia Longmire, a leading drug war analyst. “This is further evidence that the cartels have unlimited funds and creativity.”

In response to the pressure by the cartels, the US government has been employing a fleet of robots to scourer tunnels looking for drugs.  The nation’s increasingly high-tech battle against drug smuggling along the Southwest border just got another ally: a wireless, compact, camera-equipped robot.  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.”

“That is not an option we needed right now,…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,” said Agent Hecht.

The military-grade Pointman Tactical Robot is only 19 inches wide and can flip, negotiate rough terrain, and climb stairs (shown left with shotgun).

“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.

So the war on drugs has come down to a war between robots, cartels with drones and DEA agents with tactical mobile units.  As previously written, the concept of Robocop is within reach.  Sheriff Bart you can now retire.

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