[This post originally appeared on my Patreon page on 13 April 2016]
October 14, 2029
Early last month, an employee of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources made a puzzling discovery in the Tichigan Wildlife Area southwest of Milwaukee, Wisconsin: a downed drone struggling to return to the air from a stand of reeds on the shore of the Fox River. The drone was a common octocopter, of a brand and model known for durability and large battery capacity. But this drone was unusual. It was painted in a brown and green camouflage pattern and had no other markings whatsoever. It had no antenna to receive signals. And there was almost certainly nobody within half a mile to control it; a census of migratory birds was in progress and a large section of shoreline was closed to the public for the day. The drone had lost three of its eight rotors; a spray of feathers nearby hinted that a red-tailed hawk had likely downed the craft and then departed, disappointed that its prey was not edible.
The drone also had a parcel attached. The parcel was bound in camouflage plastic shrink-wrap and taped to the drone’s body with common black duct tape.
The employee threw a tarp over the drone, bundled it into his work vehicle, and reported his find to the state police. Upon investigation, the Wisconsin state police turned it over to the FBI. Today, a spokesman for the FBI confirmed that the drone was carrying five kilograms of nearly pure powdered cocaine. There were “several indications” that the origin of both parcel and drone was Venezuela.
In previous years there have been numerous reports of drones being used to transport drugs, mostly over the US-Mexico border. Last year several dozen drones were disabled there, and it has generally been believed that drugs traveled by foot or vehicle to locations close to the border, are transported over the border region by drones with pre-programmed flight paths to a distance of no more than five or ten miles from the border, then continue their journey by more traditional means: concealed in personal and business vehicles, mainly.
But testimony from apprehended drug dealers and distributors in recent years has hinted that sometimes drones are more widely used, and that the practice is becoming more common. This presents a problem for law enforcement. FBI experts determined that the drone captured near Milwaukee had a range of seventy miles. Its upper surfaces were covered with solar cells, which could double its range or more in sunny weather. Programmed with a predetermined flight path, there are no control signals either from or to the drone to jam, intercept, or aid detection of drones. Using data from Google Maps, the drone was programmed to fly low, between fifty and one hundred feet altitude, evading detection by radar. The detail level of Google Maps allows it to skirt hazards such as heavy forest or areas in which it could easily be sighted such as open prairie near housing developments or highway.
Relatively few drones would be needed to form a “drug highway” from Venezuela or other drug-producing regions in south and central America, to destinations in the United States, with drones flying fifty to one hundred mile routes between rural smuggling houses. Drones carry relatively small burdens — the five kilograms discovered at Tichigan is near the practical limit for most civilian drones — but they can fly at all hours. Drones might carry half a dozen packages in a twenty-four hour period. All the safe houses have to do is replace batteries and place the drained ones in the charger, powering up for the next drug-laden drone visitor. And if caught, of course, a drone cannot betray its master. Someone operating a drone depot may know little more than that an anonymous internet contact places money on a reloadable credit/debit card for each drone successfully passed through the depot.
The FBI spokesperson declined to discuss how law enforcement might deal with this new smuggling threat. “This situation is too new, and we’re still exploring options. We’d rather the bad guys didn’t have any hints.” But one thing seems certain: law enforcement has never been able to halt the flow of narcotics or other small, valuable cargos. It’s unlikely that they will prove able to halt this new, less easily detected avenue.