US Wants to Use Drones to Kill Coca Plants in Colombia

The Department of State wants the drones because it says improvised explosive devices, ambushes, and hazardous wildlife are threats to personnel.
Spray UAVs
Image: Department of State

The Department of State wants to use drones to spray to kill coca plants in Colombia, according to a newly released request on a U.S. government website.

The news highlights how drones may be becoming more important in the U.S.'s war on drugs and the cocaine trade, one arm of which involves spraying large amounts of herbicides on a target area and which traditionally had been accomplished with small aircraft or by officers on the ground. In the U.S., pesticide sprayer drones are used somewhat commonly by commercial farmers

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“The Department of State, INL Bogota, has a requirement to purchase spray UAV systems to support eradication operations throughout Colombia,” the request published this month reads. It adds that the program will be under the command of the Colombian National Police (CNP).

Do you have any more information on novel uses of drones? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

As for why the State Department is seeking drones specifically, “Coca cultivation in Colombia remains at record highs and eradication operations in Colombia remain dangerous. INL Bogota is seeking to bolster the CNP’s capability to increase the coca eradication rates and minimize the risk for police personnel in the field.” Specifically, one document published along with the request points to improvised explosive devices, ambushes, and hazardous wildlife being threats.

An image included in another document of what a potential flight path of a UAV would look like shows a neat series of straight lines across what the document describes as “spray areas.” These might be between two and ten hectares each. The style of the flight paths are not dissimilar to the sort of preprogrammed routes that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has previously used for surveillance-focused flights of its Predator drones. 

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“The spray system should support common commercially available nozzle types (e.g., TeeJet, Kramp),” one document reads.

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A screenshot of one of the documents included with the request. Image: Department of State

In an operation, an “UAS Spray Team (UST)” at a base in Colombia would receive a geo-fenced polygon of the intended spray area based on high-resolution imagery or other means, and the team plans and creates the spray mission in a piece of software, the document continues. The plan still requires a human team to travel to a “staging area,” who travel there by transport helicopter and secure the spray area, according to the document. 

The plan then uses an Obstacle Marking Drone (OMD) to mark and verify the perimeter of the spray area, before a second set of Spray Drones (SD) set off to eradicate the crops. The Spray Drones may return to the staging area to “reload, refuel, and relaunch as required,” the document says. The whole process should take under two hours.

The U.S. government has previously been concerned about how Chinese made drones might be utilized by China for surveillance or other purposes. With that in mind, “The system cannot contain major hardware (e.g., flight controller) flight control firmware, or mission planning software manufactured in China. THIS REQUIREMENT CANNOT BE WAIVED,” one document adds.

This isn’t the first time the Department of State has sought UAVs for this purpose. In October 2021 it published a similar request, Nextgov reported at the time. But the latest request shows there may be continued interest in the approach.

The Department of State did not respond to a request for comment.

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