Cheap and They Don't Snitch: Drones Are the New Drug Mules

Drones are on the rise in the drug world with smugglers using them to shift product across borders, into prisons - and soon to a street near you.
Max Daly
London, GB
Packets of heroin and a drone confiscated by Indian Border Security Force from near the border outpost of Ranian. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images.

Last week border officials in the Punjab region of India revealed they intercepted 107 drug-carrying drones sent by smuggling gangs last year over the border from Pakistan, the highest number on record. 

Most were carrying heroin or opium from Pakistan to be dropped and received by collaborators in the Punjab, notorious for having India’s worst levels of opiate addiction


Last year the head of a police narcotics unit in Lahore, a city in Pakistan which borders the Punjab, was dismissed after he was suspected of running a drug trafficking gang sending drones over to India.   

But the use of cheap flying robots instead of humans to smuggle drugs across borders is a worldwide phenomenon. 

In September the Jordanian air force shot down two drones carrying crystal meth coming from Syria. It was the ninth such drone in 2023, according to Caroline Rose, a director at the New Lines Institute in Washington DC.

Drug smugglers from Syria, the world’s largest producer of the black market amphetamine pill, captagon, often use Jordan as a transit point to the wider Gulf Arab kingdoms and the global market. Rose thinks Syrian smugglers have increased the use of drones to smuggle captagon and meth due to a security clampdown at the Jordanian border which has made trafficking by land harder. 

Drones sent by Mexican cartels carrying drugs such as cocaine, meth, and heroin regularly cross the U.S. border. 


They are being used to shift drugs by air and sea between Africa and Europe. 

Spanish police seized a massive drone with a wingspan of over four metres capable of carrying up to 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of cargo in a special compartment in its nose, being used by a French smuggling gang to traffic drugs from Morocco to southern Spain. In 2022, police found three underwater drones built to smuggle up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of drugs across the Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain.   

Drones are being used to smuggle drugs into high security prisons worldwide from Brazil and France to Australia and across the U.S.

In Canada, where 75 percent of prison contraband seizures are attributed to drone drops, there were 700 drone related incidents in two years, including one where an inmate fatally overdosed on fentanyl that had been delivered into his prison by drone.

In October last year the U.K. government was forced to introduce no fly zones around all its prisons due to a “sharp increase” in the number of drones carrying drugs and mobile phones into jails.  


Drug gangs are also using drones as eyes in the sky. 

In Latin America and the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, drug trafficking cartels use them to scout out drug smuggling routes. In the U.K. they have been used by drug stash thieves to seek out rival weed farms and by guerilla weed growers to find suitable spots to set up illegal farms. 

They are used by law enforcement too, from heat seeking drones spotting indoor cannabis farms in the U.K., to drones being used by police to catch street drug dealers in Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.

But drones will likely become an everyday part of drug dealing too, according to Peter Warren Singer, author of multiple books on national security and a Fellow at think tank New America, with legit medicines due to be delivered by drone in the U.S. later this year and maybe in the U.K. too.  

“We are just scraping the surface of what is possible, as drone deliveries become more and more common in the commercial world, it will be the same with delivery of illicit goods. In our book, Burn-In, we explain how a future city will see drones zipping about delivering everything from groceries and burritos to drugs, both prescribed by a doctor or bought off a dealer.


“Drones have traditionally been used by governments and corporations for what are known as the "3 D's" jobs that are too dull, dirty, or dangerous for humans. For criminals, it is the same, except add in another D: Dependable. A drone doesn't steal the product and can't be arrested or snitch if caught.” 

Liam O’Shea, senior research fellow for organised crime and policing at defence and security thinktank RUSI, said drones were at the moment of limited value to wholesale traffickers and organised criminal gangs because of their range and the weight they can carry. 

“It makes sense that smugglers would seek to use drones. They are cheap and easy to acquire. They also lower the risks involved in some transactions, as smugglers do not have to be physically present during transactions. They offer opportunities for smuggling in areas where previous routes were too risky, such as prisons and over securitised borders.

“I expect them to be of greater value to smaller players and distributors dealing with smaller quantities. Wholesale drug traffickers will still need to use routes that facilitate smuggling at higher volume or using drones to make multiple trips, which entails risks of detection. 

“That may well change as improvements in technology improve drones’ carrying capacity and crime groups are better able to access drones with greater capacity.”