Advances in robotic technologies are providing law enforcement with new tools in the fight against drug smuggling.

More than 70,000 deaths occurred in the U.S. due to drug overdoses in 2017, higher than deaths attributed to car crashes, HIV, or gun violence. Deaths involving fentanyl rose some 45% in 2017, underscoring the severity of the opioid crisis.

As the crisis continues to spread across America, law enforcement is turning to a new generation of robotic technology to expose smugglers, as well as identify drug use and trafficking hot spots within major metropolitan areas.

This article will explore the top 3 robotic innovations with the most potential to impact law enforcement effectiveness:

  1. Electronic ferrets scanning cargo holds to find contraband hidden deep within shipping containers
  2. Drug-sniffing robots detecting illicit drugs in sewers, allowing cities to map drug-related hot spots
  3. Mini sub-chasers covering areas where underwater drug-smuggling crafts frequent

The Office of Field Operations, a US federal law enforcement agency managing operations at over 300 ports including 15 pre-clearance stations in the Caribbean, Ireland, and Canada reports a continued rise in the number of drugs being smuggled into the U.S. (see table below).

Office of Field Operations Drug Seizures (to August 31, 2018)
















































** 1,357

*weights are in pounds (lbs.)
** Fentanyl statistics reflected here are through July 31. 

To cope with the rising tide of drug trafficking, law enforcement agencies are experimenting with and deploying the following 3 promising robotic innovations:

  1. Digital Ferrets Make Inspecting Cargo Containers Faster and Easier

Sealed cargo containers used to ship goods worldwide have always been a challenge for law enforcement to search. When faced with hundreds of containers on a single ship, the task of searching all of them is monumental.

Current cargo searching methods including the deployment of drug-sniffing dogs and external cargo scanners are designed to detect narcotics and explosives. Heartbeat monitors and carbon dioxide probes are also used to detect the presence of humans being smuggled illegally. A new robotic ferret has been in development since 2008 at the University of Sheffield, UK, intended to take cargo container searches to a whole new level.

The robotic ferrets are designed to attach themselves magnetically to the ceiling inside a container. From there, the ferret can literally crawl around the container, using sophisticated sensors to detect illegal substances. Fiber optic and laser technology advancements are making it possible for these devices to detect tiny particles of various substances.

The tiny probes are being designed to pinpoint exactly where illegal contraband is hidden; saving thousands of hours in search time, and reducing the number of drug shipments that escape the screening of law enforcement.

  1. Robots Sniffing Out Drugs Through the Sewer System

Drug-sniffing robots being deployed into the sewer systems of major cities are helping law enforcement to determine where drug use and trafficking most commonly occurs across cities nationwide and even internationally.

At the local level, sewerage sniffing robots can discern the differences between drug types—painkillers versus heroin or fentanyl. More importantly, this detection technology can tell the difference between pills that were ingested, metabolized, or passed through as waste versus intact pills that were recently flushed down a toilet by criminals trying to escape the law.

This information is critical for mapping and profiling specific neighborhoods as hot spots so additional personnel can be deployed accordingly.

The Challenges

While this new robotic technology is promising, it is not without its technical, privacy, and terrain challenges.

Deploying, monitoring, and maintaining these types of robots comes at a price. But the upside is that once the robot technology is set up and launched, the cost per sample significantly decreases over time.

Drug detection can be problematic as many drugs break down slowly in water, and heroin quickly turns to morphine. For this reason, it is nearly impossible to distinguish heroin-based substances from legitimate sources, such as hospital wastewater, and criminal sources.

To counter the problems associated with identifying morphine, investigators are targeting fentanyl, which breaks down less rapidly in water. However, because fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, users need far less of it. Hence, fewer trace elements are entering the wastewater supply making it very difficult to track opioid users.

Despite these barriers, municipalities are still considering using robots as a legitimate means of detecting and targeting drug abuse hotspots. And as this technology evolves and price per unit declines, testing sewerage may prove to be a far more viable drug-combatting alternative as cities grow faster.

  1. New Fleet of Robots Seek Drug-Smuggling Mini-Subs

Not long ago, drug smugglers were using high-speed watercraft to run drugs into the United States. We all remember those episodes of Miami Vice when cigar boats powered by multiple engines were employed to literally outrun drug enforcement agents.

The latest wave of smugglers is deploying far less detectible craft—mini-subs that run under the water or semi-submersible vessels that travel just beneath the surface. These vessels are capable of carrying tons of illicit drugs and, because of their low profile, are nearly undetectable by conventional radar technology.

Interestingly, the majority of these vessels are being built in the jungles of Columbia then floated down to the sea through a vast network of rivers.

While the cost to build such vessels may run into millions of dollars, the profit far outweighs the investment. Just one of these vessels can carry thousands of pounds of cocaine with a street value of tens of millions of dollars.

Even though sophisticated aircraft-deployed radar systems are helping to locate semi-submersible vessels, it is suspected that for every vessel seized, a larger number slip through undetected. And the most sophisticated mini-subs loaded with drugs are virtually undetectable.

Because of this known challenge, a group of scientists and students at Boston University are experimenting with a new fleet of mini-sub detectors to help Coast Guard and Naval teams fight the cartels.

While still in the experimental stages, the small fleet of unmanned aquatic vehicle prototypes uses readily available materials, making them highly cost-effective at under $1,000 each.

When suspicious objects are discovered by an unmanned vehicle, other vehicles of the fleet are alerted to swarm the area, allowing for accurate triangulation of the course and speed of the suspected drug-carrying mini-sub. As a result, the robots can spread out over wide areas, yet still remain in contact with every other member of its swarm, regardless of that swarm’s size.

The benefits of being able to intercept these mini-subs extend far beyond stopping illicit drug trafficking because the same cargo carrying capacity that transports tons of drugs could be used to send weapons or bombs.

Build a Safer World

While many of the drug-smuggling deterrents discussed are still in their development stages, these new technologies will be refined, providing new tools to law enforcement in the fight against drug, weapon and human trafficking. When combined with digital intelligence solutions that allow agencies to analyze large quantities of data, law enforcement can effectively build and preserve a safer world.

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