The drones are sent out only after a suspicious vehicle has been identified. “It gives a god’s-eye view,” said Craig Benson, director of business development for California-based AeroVironment Inc., which makes the Puma AE.
The Pumas can fly for about two hours and have the ability to sneak up on smugglers because they are quiet and look like birds, with a wingspan of nine feet. The hope is that its cameras will be able to capture evidence of smugglers trying to throw cocaine or marijuana overboard to avoid arrest and prosecution.
One Navy requirement of the Puma was for it to be able to land in salt water and float for four hours, Benson said.
That requirement was put to the test when the Puma came in for a landing on the flight deck Friday but sank quickly as it hit the exhaust gas thermal created by the ship. The remote control operator turned the plane sharply to the right to avoid hitting the large throng of media watching the demonstration. Gasps were heard as it crashed into the sea.
Harris shrugged. “The thing is going to float,” he said. And it did, retrieved more than 15 minutes later by the ship’s small boat. Another Puma was launched. Harris said he’d give the operator $1 if he landed it this time in the middle of the big X. And the operator did.
While the five- to seven-foot seas and winds of more than 20 knots forced the Coast Guard to call off a boarding demonstration, Harris said he was pleased at how the blimps radar and drone’s cameras tracked the Gotcha, a previously confiscated go-fast boat from a drug bust that was positioned offshore of Key West for Friday’s test.
The next step is to test the blimp and drone operationally in the southwestern Caribbean. This is being delayed a few days to “tweak some issues with the radar,” Harris said. “We’ve got to wait for the techs to arrive.”
If all goes well with the operational tests, Harris said the information will be passed up to “Big Navy,” who will decide if the blimp and drone will become part of its assets. The decision will be made in consultation with other agencies, including the Key West-based Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF), which oversees Operation Martillo for the United States.
While many people see the war on drugs as a losing battle, Harris and other defenders say the efforts are paying off, particularly since the United States has partnered with Colombia, France, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and several other countries in the joint Martillo mission.
Martillo is Spanish for hammer. Since the operation began in January 2012, it has seized about 200 metric tons of cocaine and 25,000 pounds of marijuana — a street value of approximately $3 billion, as well as $3.5 million in drug money. More than 340 suspected smugglers also have been detained, according to Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker, public affairs officer with the U.S. 4th Fleet.
While the Puma was being tested Friday, word reached the crew of the Swift that the Coast Guard was offloading at the Miami Beach base an estimated $27 million worth of cocaine seized from a 68-foot fishing boat cruising through the western Caribbean Sea — exactly where the Swift is going next to conduct three weeks of operational testing of the blimp and drone.
That seizure occurred April 18. Two days later, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine crew on a P-3 made an even bigger bust after spotting a speed boat carrying more than 3,300 pounds of pure cocaine with a street value of about $242 million in open waters off Panama.
The P-3 crew notified Panama, which sent three of its law enforcement boats to capture what turned out to be Colombian smugglers.
About 67 percent of all U.S.-involved drug busts in the Caribbean are now the result of multiple nations working together.
“That’s a big increase in what it used to be,” Harris said.
Harris also hopes the blimp and drones may be less expensive alternatives for countries in the partnership that can’t afford fixed-wing aircraft for surveillance, detection and monitoring.
“I was just in Colombia talking about this very thing,” Harris said. “I showed them pictures on Facebook.”