Border securityRobots help Border Patrol navigate smugglers’ tunnels

Published 27 February 2014

The U.S. Border Patrol is using remote- controlled robots to navigate tunnels used by drug cartels and smugglers to import drugs, weapons, and people from Mexico into the United States.The robots are used as the first eyes on places deemed too dangerous for humans to explore.

The U.S. Border Patrol is using remote-controlled robots to navigate tunnels used by drug cartels and smugglers to import drugs, weapons, and people from Mexico into the United States. Three of the four robots used by the agency are assigned to the Nogales, Arizona Border Patrol station.

Twenty-five out of forty-five cross-border tunnels discovered along the U.S.-Mexico border within the past three years were found in Nogales. Last year, about 2.9 million pounds of drugs were seized by Customs and Border Protection agents, of which 1.3 million pounds were seized in Arizona.

The New York Times reports that in Nogales, Border Patrol agents guard the city’s underground drainage system using cameras and motion sensor alarms. When necessary, agents crawl through the tunnels. Tunnels may be dangerous for Border Patrol agents to move through because of poor construction or lack of proper ventilation, so robots are used to identify the risks and assess the situation inside the tunnels.

“If we find a tunnel, we like to send a robot into clear the tunnel and identify any threats, contraband, potential people with weapons, and let the agent know ahead of time if the tunnel is structurally sound,” said Border Patrol agent Kevin Hecht, an agency tunnel expert.

The robots are valued for their speed and maneuverability as they move through sewage in tunnels. In December 2013, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) demonstrated that their robots can map underground tunnels up to fifty feet below the U.S.-Mexico border. The robots were equipped with Robotic Intelligence Kernel (RIK), a technology that allows a robot to interpret its surroundings so it can operate autonomously in the field.

“Tunnels tend to be tough environments for robots because you usually can’t use a cable as a tether and you often lose communications so it’s hard to control them remotely,” said David Bruemmer, INL’s lead adaptive robotics researcher.

The Times reports that this month, federal agents closed the largest tunnel found to date, a 481-foot tunnel aired by fans and lit by lamps. The Nogales Tunnel Task Force, led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) discovered the large tunnel linking an abandoned home in Nogales, Mexico to an occupied house not far from the Nogales, Arizona border. Eric Balliet, assistant special agent in charge of HSI in Nogales, says Border Patrol agents in the Tunnel Task Force had discovered roughly one tunnel a month in Nogales since October 2010.

“At any given moment, there’s a tunnel being planned, under construction or in operation in and around this city,” Balliet said.