Tech by VICE

Cartels Are Using Untraceable Drones to Smuggle Meth

How are police ever going to catch a roboticized, autonomous drug mule?

by Jason Koebler
Jan 22 2015, 3:39pm

​Image: Tijuana police

By now, headlines like "meth-carrying drone crashes along border" barely raise eyebrows. We've seen drones used for smuggling before. The challenge law enforcement is now struggling with is finding a way to track down whoever is operating them.

Drug cartels are getting ever more inventive with how they smuggle drugs—from subs, tunnels, catapults, liquified drugs being put into bodies and the like—but drones, more than any other technology, seem uniquely suited to the task. They're cheap, they're fast, they can fly autonomously, and they're (usually) reusable.

That's why it's not surprising that Tijuana police found a downed drone carrying more than six pounds of meth yesterday. We've seen this before, all over the world: Russians have used drones to smuggle cigarettes, and small-potatoes drug dealers in the United States have used drones to drop small quantities of drugs into prison yards in several instances.

The problem police have run into is the fact that they have no idea who the hell is operating these drones. There has not yet been a case that I'm aware of where the operator of a smuggling drone was actually caught.

Image: Tijuana Police

"The type of drone flown is one that can be directed using a GPS system to detect and go to the destination autonomously, and they can attach different objects to it to drop off," the Tijuana police wrote in a Facebook post. "This was an attempt to send [the drugs] from one part of the city to another or to another city along the border."

The police call this technique the use of "blind mules," because they can be automatically set, and then whoever is flying it can basically leave, undetected. The type of drone used, a DJI Spreading Wings 900, is popular with professional photographers and costs $1,400. It doesn't come with an autopilot GPS system, but a separate one can be installed on it, as it was in this case.

There are several popular third-party GPS autopilot devices. Some of them have flight history that can be downloaded from the drone, others don't.

That may be the next skirmish in the ongoing struggle over privacy: Should flight data be encrypted? Should law enforcement or the Federal Aviation Administration be able to track where you've flown your drone because of a few bad actors?

There has already been a call from some researchers to encrypt the data going between flight controllers and the drones themselves, because hackers can (and have, in controlled situations) hijack the signal and take control of someone else's drone. The fear here is that drones could be hijacked and intentionally flown into important targets or intentionally flown into a plane. It may be a farfetched idea, but it is theoretically feasible.(Imagine a swarm of drones programmed to fly across the flight paths of a major airport, for example.)

It's clear from the Tijuana police's post that law enforcement is vexed here—the police don't seem to have any leads, and there's no real reason to suspect that flight data would even be all that helpful: A cartel that varied its flight paths, drop off points, and that left soon after initially launching the drone wouldn't be leaving any serviceable intelligence for the police to use.

So, yeah, another drone carrying drugs crashed, but it certainly won't be the last. There's no clear law enforcement action to take, so why would the cartels stop flying them?