Conventional Detection Methods

Routine checks using drug-sniffing dogs can sometimes detect opioids, as the recent $1.7M fentanyl seizure by US Customs and Border Patrol can attest to. Despite this success, the dogs and their accompanying officers run the risk of inhaling fentanyl which can lead to an accidental overdose or death. Because of this ongoing threat, SWAT teams and first responding officers are experimenting with cutting-edge detection technologies to limit possible exposure.  

Current Solutions for Frontline Officers At-Risk

As fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, coming in to contact with just a small amount even if airborne can send one to the emergency room. Moreover, another drug similar to fentanyl, is Carfentanil, a drug used to tranquilize large animals that is 5000 times more potent than heroin. An amount the size of a poppy seed can kill a person. As is the case, frontline officers need to take protective measures to detect and handle the substance.

Two technologies, Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) and Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry (DART-MS), are being developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to assist with fentanyl detection. With this technology, officers can swab the outside of a bag to detect trace elements of fentanyl.

The portable IMS devices are about the size of a microwave and more conducive for infield fentanyl detection, whereas the DAR-MS are the size of a washing machine and suited for forensics labs, borders, airports, prisons, and postal facilities.

The downside is that Chinese and Mexican fentanyl producers can create fentanyl analogs that are undetectable as the compounds are unrecognized by the preprogrammed devices that must be continuously updated.

Drone vs. Drone

Drug-smuggling drones that deliver to prisons, urban areas and across borders, could be targeted by defensive tech recently used at the UK airport called “Drone Dome” that took down a supposed rogue drone in December. Moreover, police officers, prison officers, and border patrols are starting to launch their own drones to take proactive measures in the fight against rogue drone threats. 

New York City Police have launched their own drone fleet consisting of 14 drones designed to image traffic accidents, search for evidence at crime scenes and collect details of hazardous material spills. The drone technology features thermal imaging, a powerful zoom camera, and 3D mapping capabilities.

Drones on the Border

For better border control to counter drug-smuggling, the military-grade unarmed MQ-9 Predators B drones have been deployed since 2006 but are not yet cost effective. Currently, these types of drones are only responsible for less than 1% of apprehensions and their cost per arrest is $23K. Hand launched drones are hoped to be more effective but have yet to show impressive numbers in terms of drug-smuggling detection.

Robots on the Border

Since 1990, 170 tunnels have been found along the US Border specifically designed to traffic illicit drugs and weapons. With the assistance of wireless robots, the precarious scouring of the networked tunnels is being done more efficiently. As agents on the surface navigate the poorly ventilated tunnels with ease, illicit drugs are discovered at the entrance and exits on both sides of the border. 

Robots at Drug Busts

Robotic officers may be the best choice for dealing with ongoing accidental drug contact or overdose scenarios. Since 2017, the introduction of robots into malls and highly populated areas has been met with entertaining skepticism. Be that as it may, scaling police presence with the new digital ally is inevitable.

Drug dealings and overdose occurrences can be better detected by a robot able to adapt its surveillance in real-time as opposed to static cameras with inherent blind spots. SWAT teams could have robotic detectors as a first-line of defense against surprise encounters with airborne and poisonous drugs. The robots could also offer an ever-present point of contact for citizens to communicate with police to offer tips, overdose sightings or drug detection services.

Underground Robots

Cities are also understanding the value of robotic partnership and urban profiling experimentation has begun. Robot detectors have been deployed underneath residences in 12 US cities that are taking part in an experiment to scour sewers. In order to discreetly identify drug user hot spots, robots map out the chemical repositories of human waste in the sewers from the residents above.

The Arizona State University lab conducting the wastewater monitoring sends monthly data to 6 municipalities. The data includes the collective intake of opioids by residents and already has shown a 4X greater usage of oxycodone than previously reported by hospitals.   

Street-level Robots

24/7 urban robots above ground are also grabbing the spotlight. The US will surely have an answer to Dubai’s ambitious goal of 25% of its police force becoming robotic by 2030. Equipped with facial recognition and thermal imaging, this new robotic wing of law enforcement could become responsible for a lot of preliminary surveillance, assessment, and threat detection to neutralize if not eliminate urban drug crisis manifestation.

As urban robots expand their roles to include cleaning, inspection and delivery, law enforcement will have multiple robotic channels outside their direct responsibility that also produce contextual data in real-time. Robot recognition of wearable technology worn by city dwellers could further complete the picture of potential and existing crime scenes. 

The data merge of aerial drones, robots on the ground, and wearable clad citizens have the potential of squeezing out inherent pockets of drug crime, be it in high-density public areas, alleys, or underground. And with certain city neighborhoods already being built from the “Internet up”, like Google is doing in Toronto, the transparency of urban pedestrian activity will increase dramatically.

For more in-depth coverage of the crisis, read the whitepaper – Battling the Narcotics Crisis with Pathfinder

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