Colombia Develops UAV Technology to Fight Drugs, Rebels, Illegal Mining

By Dialogo
August 01, 2013

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Armed groups and drug smugglers have long sought cover in Colombia’s remote mountains, thick jungles and expansive coasts — a varied and, at times, impassable terrain that can foil conventional forms of surveillance.
That’s led Colombia’s armed forces to depend increasingly on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) to monitor vulnerable infrastructure sites, gather intelligence on guerrilla forces and track the movements of “go fast” drug boats.
The Colombian Air Force recently announced that it has a fleet of more than 50 surveillance drones, including the Israeli-made Hermes 900 and the small ScanEagle, a Boeing-made UAV that transmits real-time video of stationary and moving targets. Colombia is also developing its own drone technology. Last month, authorities showed off a Colombian-made flight simulator that will train drone pilots.
“In the entire region, there is a boom in the acquisition and development of drones,” said John Marulanda, a Bogotá-based consultant who advises international companies on security matters.
Colombia leads Latin America in drone technology
Analysts say at least a dozen countries throughout the Americas already have already bought or are developing their own drones, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. All models are believed to be unarmed and for surveillance purposes only.
Colombia reportedly first began using U.S.-supplied ScanEagle drones in 2006 as part of counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations, and the Washington Post reported in 2011 that the aircraft were used “to support U.S. hostage rescue efforts and assist” the Colombian military’s pursuit of guerrilla leaders belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist group.
Colombian authorities have also viewed drones as the best option to monitor the vital Caño Limon oil pipeline, a repeated target of FARC bombings, Marulanda said.
“Drones are now watching oil ducts in the west, in the [department of] Putumayo,” he said. “It is known that drones have been used to watch the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela. And there is also information that they have been used to patrol [coasts] along the Pacific because of narcotrafficking there.”
Colombia developing X2, IRIS drones
Colombia also has two projects to develop its own drones, one led by the military and the other headed by engineers at Bogotá’s San Buenaventura University. The latter, called the Navigator X2, has already flown. It has a five-meter wingspan and flies at about 14,000 feet above sea level. The military’s drone is called the IRIS UAV. It is expected to perform its first test flights in June, and it can fly at 15,000 feet above sea level while transmitting photos remotely at a distance of 60 miles.
Air Force Gen. Guillermo León León is head of Corporación de la Industria Aeronáutica Colombia [Colombian Aeronautics Industry Corp.), which is developing the IRIS UAV. He told Bogotá’s El Tiempo newspaper that the project’s aim is to give Colombia “autonomy in the construction of these strategic planes.”
And if Colombia were to develop its own drones, it would likely begin to sell them to other countries in the region, Marulanda said: “Countries like Ecuador and Venezuela are making their own drones, while Brazil and Argentina are in a joint project to make a drone that can compete with the Israeli drones so that they can be sold in the region.”
Weaponized drones in the future?
Colombian authorities view drones primarily as surveillance tools to cover a lot of terrain at relatively little cost, said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security at the Washington Office on Latin America. UAVs could be used to monitor guerrilla columns, drug routes, illegal gold mines and coca farms in remote areas, he said, but questioned whether Colombia’s military would be able to reach them in time to stop the illegal activities.
“I don’t think they have that nailed down at all,” Isacson said. “If not, all they are going to have is a lot of imagery.”
Another question is whether and when Latin American drones will become weaponized, or equipped with the ability to fire off missiles remotely. Some existing models, such as the Hermes 900, could theoretically be modified to carry and fire missiles, though major additional technology investments would be needed.
Due to its internal conflict, Colombia has acquired a large number of materials from the U.S. and because of the support of this country we have made technological progress in military strategies, which has given us the tools to develop resources to solve our internal conflict, along with other countries.