More than 150 fast and high-flying aerial drones flew over the border from Mexico and crossed the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in the last 24 hours. Each carried a cargo of anywhere from 500kg to two tons of refined cocaine. They have overwhelmed US defenses.
“We catch maybe 20 to 30 of them, shooting them down at the border. But, if we’re over here, then we’re not 1,000 miles away catching them there,” says Buddy Hughes, Wing Commander at the newly-established DEA Air Force Base outside San Diego.
The drug smugglers use fleets of articulated vehicles traveling around Mexico, as well as fast boats anchored outside US territorial waters to launch and control the drones. They coordinate so that the transporters all leave simultaneously. They drop their cargoes at pre-arranged, and similarly varying, remote locations across the US.
“It’s simply the law of large numbers,” says Justice Timms, an economist at the Atlanta University of Technology.
“A single cargo-drop is worth over 20 million dollars. Even if they lose half the planes, the drugs they get through are worth 3.3 billion dollars a time. And we’re seeing waves of drones coming through with increasing frequency.”
“We’ve been losing the war on drugs for decades. It’s just become quite obvious now,” says Senator Julia Franks, who is tabling a new law to legalize drugs. “If we don’t legalize it now we’re just helping drug dealers get rich and destroy our way of life.”
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
Some 165 tons of cocaine are consumed by about 7 million Americans every year. A further 350 tons are seized annually while being smuggled into the US. The loss of about 65% of production does little to dampen an industry worth US$ 40 billion per year in the US alone.
The US response – its War on Drugs – costs about US$ 40 billion a year which excludes the US$ 23,876 per person it costs to incarcerate each of the 1.9 million people currently serving time for drug-related offences (US$ 46 billion).
By way of comparison, Pfizer’s flagship drug Viagra ‘only’ has global sales of US$ 2 billion and the entire legal pharmaceutical industry in the US is worth US$ 290 billion a year.
The profits available to the illegal drugs industry are sufficiently attractive to permit investment which goes well beyond what even the US can afford to combat it.
2012: Spying goes mainstream
Cheap aerial drones are being used outside of military environments as EU agriculture inspectors start to use light remote aircraft to combat fraudulent claims for subsidies. Beyond the reach of police, civil rights protestors in Poland use drones to get an early warning of attempts to herd them.
Eyes in the sky are causing legal headaches for activists and governments alike. After police attempt to use drones to track criminals, the Civil Aviation Authority steps in. “The Civil Aviation Authority said it needed to be consulted over any use of the drones, that can fly up to 400ft and reach speeds of 30mph,” reports the BBC as drones in Merseyside are grounded.
Similar rules are used against OccupyLondon protestors who attempt to fly a quadrocoptor as police close in to dismantle their camp near the London Stock Exchange.
These are light and small devices, able to carry only a digital camera and transmit a signal over short distances. Larger autonomous vehicles are still the specialist prevail of the military.
2014: Drones and the Zero Factor
After successfully automating much of US remote troop resupply with their range of aerial convoy drones, Northrop Grumman introduces a comprehensive automated distribution network.
“Emergency supplies can now be loaded onto UAVs in the US, refueled anywhere in the world via autonomous refueling drones, and land that cargo,” says Chris Cheetham, spokesman for Northrop Grumman, “all without the intervention of a single human operator.”
All that is required is to present the unmanned aerial vehicles with a destination and they take care of everything in-between.
“We had some concerns with cargo being shot down over our operations in Syria,” says General Joe Kruger, chief of operations for the UN-Syria Combined Forces, “but we solved that by ‘swarming’.” He won’t discuss this strategy further but grainy footage on YouTube from Syrian freedom-fighters shows 20 UAVs flying over occupied territory and taking evasive maneuvers to avoid artillery. One is shot down but the rest of the cargo appears to make it past.
In six months, no soldier in the UN combined force has been killed.
2016: The commoditization of transport
In November 2014, an embarrassed US had to admit that a complete cargo transport drone had been captured in Iran and sold to China. That mistake is compounded in 2015 when the first Chinese cargo drones take to the skies.
Matters get worse when China’s famously leaky military industrial designs escape into the private sector. “Our transit drone is designed for farmers to carry their crops to the Co-op,” says Ai Lo-an, CEO of HCSTR Engineering. Each vehicle can only carry 1.2 tons of cargo but it is entirely automated, including loading. The vehicle is designed for grain supplies and is able to fly back and forth from a silo ferrying its cargo to customers.
“We’re very excited about this,” says Henry Wing, a farmer near Beijing. “Yes, it is more expensive than going by truck but traffic jams are so bad now that most of my grain is exposed to pollution and rain before it even gets to market. This takes less time and is better for the harvest.”
2017: Swarming drug mules
The price of cargo drones falls fast, from highs of 1.2 million dollars in 2016 to 500,000 dollars in early 2017. New applications grow quickly, including grocery and retail deliveries trialed by Wal-Mart at some of their rural big-box stores in the US.
“We never thought it would come to this,” says Judith Peters, of the US Drug Enforcement Agency. Her horrified face is reproduced beneath news headlines across the world as the first wave of drug-carrying drones overwhelms border authorities.
“We estimate that this wave of drones carried in something like 100 tons of cocaine,” says Justice Timms, an economist at the Atlanta University of Technology. Only six tons was captured.
“They caught us unprepared this time, but we’ll know they’re coming next time,” says Buddy Hughes, Wing Commander at the newly-established Drug Enforcement Air force Base outside San Diego.
Many doubt that the US can do much about it. “We’d need an entirely new ring of radar bases simply to track these craft. They’re not armed, are light and small. We’re going to lose this battle. Time for a rethink,” says Justice Timms.