As drone sales to civilians soar, Latin American officials are concerned that the unmanned aircraft could be used to transport illegal drugs, even for murder
By Tim Johnson
As the chief executive of what may be the first academy to train drone operators in Latin America, José Luis González is acutely aware that unmanned aerial vehicles can be used for both good and evil.
Most of the students who study at his Drone Academy are photographers seeking to capture sweeping aerial images, engineers using drones to photograph damage to structures like bridges or hobbyists eager to attain new playthings.
“This is our own brand, Helidroid, and we put this toy gun on it and if you press this button,” González said, pausing as a rapid ft-ft-ft noise came out of the airborne drone, the sound of toy gunfire finishing his sentence for him. “Imagine if instead of a plastic gun you had a real gun, or if you put a grenade on it?”
Across Latin America, the sale of drones to civilians is taking off. In most cases, the drones are mini flying devices, suitable only for tiny payloads of a couple of pounds or so, perhaps a small video camera with a gimbal to stabilize the image.
But authorities around the region are scrambling to enact regulations to catch up to the reality of drone usage, seeking to reassure a citizenry that is not altogether calm about the phenomenon.
Law enforcement officials in Mexico and Central America, as well as in the Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, say they are concerned drones could be used in the illegal trade.
Earlier this month, two men pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court in San Diego to smuggling 28.5 pounds of heroin into the United States from Mexico using drones.
Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said smugglers have expanded beyond tunnels, fast watercraft and ultralight airplanes.
“We have found their tunnels, their Cessnas, their jet skis, their pangas, and now we have found their drones,” she said following the guilty pleas of Jonathan Elias, 18, and Brayan Valle, 19, for smuggling across the border at Calexico on April 28.
Drone accidents are spurring calls for regulation. Two Argentine women were walking along a Buenos Aires street Aug. 15 when a drone hit them. Both were hospitalized. The 20-year-old operator said he had been filming a commercial.
“It is time that the responsible parties on the matter … jointly develop standards that address and regulate the activity of drones due to their irregular use,” a reader, Ruben Pascual, wrote to the La Nacion newspaper in a letter published Aug. 19.
Drones are banned from archaeological sites in Mexico, but it is not uncommon to see the remotely controlled devices flying in the capital, including around the landmark Angel de la Independencia monument or at crowded concerts.
A drone disrupted a concert by the Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias in late May in Tijuana. As the drone approached him on the stage, Iglesias attempted to grab it, and a whirling rotor slashed his finger. Within minutes, his T-shirt was soaked with his blood.
Drones were a concern as Pope Francis visited South America last month. Ecuador and Paraguay restricted their use near his large outdoor Masses, while Bolivian police deployed five drones to provide a constant video feed from the air of the pontiff’s whereabouts to ensure security.
Mexico’s government issued a circular in April with recommendations for drone usage, saying that tiny drones should not fly higher than 400 feet or outside of visual control of the operator and should remain at least 150 feet above crowds.
“It is a suggestion, a recommendation,” said González. “If an inspector sees you flying one, he can ask you to stop but it’s not outlawed. There’s nothing that says you can’t do it.”
González said he foresees a lot of positive uses for drones. “Imagine if you could take a defibrillator to someone having a heart attack,” he said.
His Drone Academy opened several months ago and now offers three nine-hour courses each month to give owners the basics of operation, simulator time and actual outdoor experience operating a drone. Among the clients are people using drones for mapping and measuring radiation emissions with remote sensors.
“The Drone Academy is the first such academy in Mexico and all of Latin America,” González said.
González said drones could be used to create havoc as well.
“What would happen if you put C4 plastic explosives and loaded it with pellets?” he asked.
Such concerns bedevil the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to written and telephoned queries about news reports of cross-border penetration by drones. It is also of concern to security experts and the Pentagon.
“It’s sort of the dark side of the new technology,” Richard Whittle, author of the 2014 book “Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution,” said in a telephone interview. “People are violating the law all the time both here and abroad.”
Civilian drones are noisy and not hard to shoot down, but they can be difficult to detect because the smallest drones are the size of large birds.
“They are proliferating at a whirlwind pace,” Whittle noted.
The Pentagon concluded its annual anti-drone exercise, known as Black Dart, Aug. 7 at the Point Mugu, Calif., Naval Air Station. Each year, the exercise offers vendors a chance to demonstrate their latest technology to counter enemy drones.
The latest exercise focused on weapons that can neutralize “across the full spectrum of size and capability,” Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Leary, Black Dart 2016 Project Officer, said in an email.
Leary said countering drones “is a focus area across the U.S. government.”
For some Latin countries, as the numbers soar, the potential nuisance factor of drones far outweighs concerns about terrorism.
“You can buy these Chinese drones for $100, $150 or $200,” said Wladimir Fernández de Liébana y Segovia, a Chilean psychologist, pilot and civilian drone expert. “We don’t have total control of the people who are operating these things.”
The president of the Colombian Association of Remote-Controlled Aircraft, Edgar Fernando Quintero López, said 150 businesses and seven universities belong to the group, a sign of the explosion of interest.
He said he expects Colombian legislators may need at least a year to pass legislation regulating drones.
“The governments of each country (in Latin America) are rushing to create their regulations,” Quintero López said. “The governments are a little slower than the private sector.”
Credit: McClatchy News, www.mcclatchydc.com