Border-Patrolling Bots Combat Drug Smugglers

3 Min Read
Border-Patrolling Bots Combat Drug Smugglers

One of the promises of using robots is that they can perform tasks or jobs that are dangerous or even impossible for humans. A fine example of this is the recent deployment by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of remote-controlled robots to explore tunnels at the US-Mexico border that are being used to smuggle contraband and immigrants.

Applied Research Associates has delivered several of its Pointman Tactical Robots to the CBP in Tucson, which the agency is using to explore drainage tunnels that run between Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico. These tunnels are out of sight from border surveillance and are increasingly being used for illegal activity.

"With the significant improvement in border security above ground, criminal organizations in Mexico have increasingly turned to tunnels to transport drugs, weapons, people, and other illegal materials," Shevannah Wray, public affairs officer from the Tucson Sector Border Patrol, told Design News in an email. "By mitigating tunnels, the border patrol continues to effectively disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations and their illegal activities. This new robot technology will assist us in this mission."


The Pointman robots travel on wheels and are controlled through two joysticks -- one controls the wheels and the other controls the boom, Alex Kaufman, marketing director at ARA, told us. Rotating the boom allows the robot to be more nimble so it can climb stairs or lie flat to travel in tight spaces, he said.

The robots have two cameras that deliver real-time video and audio to the controller, allowing someone to see and hear what's going on in the robot's immediate surroundings. Radio control is done via either analog, for a lower cost, or through a higher-cost digital COFDM radio.

Typically, human border patrol agents investigate the tunnels themselves, but they need to put on proper gear and go in two at a time for safety, Wray explained. Often, they encounter hazardous waste or other unpleasant materials during their exploration of the pipes, or could even run into people being smuggled through the tunnels, which could create a potentially dangerous scenario. Robots provide a number of advantages to this type of work, she said, providing an element of safety for the agents, as well as helping them search for drugs or other illegal activity.

"They can reach places that are too small for agents to search, and help to safeguard agents from chemicals in street run-off and air quality issues in confined and underground locations," Wray said. "The robots improve our detection capabilities, response times, and enable us to identify and properly classify threats."

It's likely this type of work with robots and the CBP will continue and expand. Wray said her agency continues to explore ways robots can assist agents in their work, and will procure other machines in the future as it deems necessary.

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About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano

Elizabeth Montalbano has been a professional journalist covering the telecommunications, technology and business sectors since 1998. Prior to her work at Design News, she has previously written news, features and opinion articles for Phone+, CRN (now ChannelWeb), the IDG News Service, Informationweek and CNNMoney, among other publications. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she also has lived and worked in Phoenix, Arizona; San Francisco and New York City. She currently resides in Lagos, Portugal. Montalbano has a bachelor's degree in English/Communications from De Sales University and a master's degree from Arizona State University in creative writing.

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