UAVs Help Ecuador’s Navy Catch Drug Traffickers From the Air
By Dialogo October 17, 2011
The pilots at the forefront of drug interdiction in Ecuador fly so low that they never leave the ground.
From the control room, officers of the Ecuadorian Navy Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Squadron pilot these drones as they identify illegal activities in Ecuador’s waters and guide the Coast Guard on interdiction operations.
“For us, these planes are simply a transition. Pilots fly in real time. There’s just a change in their environment,” said Lt. Commander Segundo Izurieta, who leads the squadron. “The pilots are in control of the aircraft, just not in it.”
Long-time staples of science fiction movies, UAVs have entered the public lexicon thanks to their prominence in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One of the best-known is the RQ-1 Predator drone, which like all UAVs are remotely or self-piloted aircraft equipped with cameras, communications tools and sensors for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance.
UAVs have evolved into ever more complex function, including combat missions, and the technology has advanced accordingly. The diversity of operations and equipment requires several hands on deck for each operation.
In 2009, Ecuador’s Navy acquired six UAVs, at a cost of $23 million, to support efforts against drug trafficking, piracy, smuggling and organized crime in general. The UAVs — two Herons and four Searchers — will work in coordination with six high-speed boats acquired in 2008 to improve the Coast Guard’s ability to monitor and interdict.
Drug trafficking in Ecuador
Ecuador’s UAVs are based in the province of Manabí. They are equipped with digital monitoring systems that capture images of the surveillance areas, detect vessels and provide their coordinates. Their quiet engines allow them to approach their targets undetected.
Izurieta said Ecuador has been a pioneer in the use of UAVs to fight drug trafficking in South America. Indeed, military delegations from various countries have come to tour the facilities.
Due to its geographic location, Ecuador has become increasingly attractive to drug traffickers,. Its location along the Pacific Ocean to the west, and borders with coca-producing countries Colombia and Peru to the north and south, respectively, make Ecuador a target for organized crime.
Historically, the country has been vulnerable to the “balloon effect” that follows successful counternarcotics efforts in neighboring countries, and to exploitation by international cartels.
In response to heightened controls, “areas of drug production and consumption have been moving throughout the region,” said Fernando Carrión, a professor at Ecuador’s Latin America Social Sciences School (FLACSO).
Up to 200 metric tons of cocaine pass through Ecuador each year, with 60 percent of that destined for the United States, and most of the balance going to Europe. Ecuador is also a major transit country for chemical precursors and for U.S. heroin dealers, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR).
“Around 40 tons are intercepted each year, thanks to the work of the antinarcotics police, which is among the most effective of the forces, and which works in tandem with other in the region,” said Carrión.
Ecuador’s northeastern provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos, and the northwestern province of Esmeralda, near the Colombian border, are main cocaine processing regions, while coastal areas such as the Gulf of Guayaquil and Manta have become key shipping points, said Carrión.
“The main advantage of these UAVs is their ability to stay in the area for a very long time,” said Izurieta. “With regular aircraft, you need to refuel every four hours, but the Heron can remain in the air undetected up to 19 hours.”
Likewise, the Searcher can stay in the air 12 hours before refueling. This allows drones to follow suspected vessels for a long time until the Coast Guard arrives.
The UAVs have a 15-knot crosswind for takeoff and landing, with an operational ceiling of up to 25,000 feet, a reach of 80 miles in simple mode and 140 miles in relay mode per flight. The Searcher carries electro-optical equipment and DR antennae, while the Heron has marine surveillance radars.
The Ecuadorian Navy has fully integrated these six aircraft into its fleet, which has translated into significant benefits, among them the ability to conduct anti-narcotics operations on a constant basis.
Heron aircraft missions require five people in the control room: the pilot, a radar operator, an operator for the optical equipment, the mission commander, and the station chief. Since the Searcher does not have radar, it requires only four people “in flight.”
In a separate cabin are four other people in charge of bringing back the aircraft at the end of the operation. Each operation can be fully recorded because cabins are outfitted accordingly. The electro-optical cabin can record what is captured by radar, while the pilot gets the direct image in real time of what the aircrafts sees.
“We have planned four to eight mission hours daily, but if there is an alert at any point, we are able to conduct the identification without difficulty,” said Izurieta.
Ordinary aircraft have a reaction time of an hour, but the UAVs require a three-hour window because they need to key in the data and flight plan. “But there is always a plane in alert every day of the year,” he said.
Interoperability Between Navy and Coast Guard
In 2009, the Ecuadorian Coast Guard enhanced its command-and-control capacity with a main operations center in Guayaquil and a satellite office in the Galapagos Islands. These operation centers coordinate the Coast Guard’s maritime monitoring and control capabilities to confront illicit activity in Ecuadorian waters, said INCSR.
The Coast Guard also improved a satellite monitoring system — first implemented in 2008 — for oceangoing vessels 20 tons or larger. Ecuador’s Coast Guard continues to seek improved biometric capabilities in order to quickly identify individuals on suspect vessels boarded in Ecuadorian waters.
Each vessel should have a chip that contains its navigation plans. All vessels in Ecuadorian waters must be registered with the Navy, therefore, if one lacks proper registration, the pilot of the UAV automatically alerts the Coast Guard.
Likewise, the Coast Guard mission commander has all the information in his laptop. “If he sees a different vessel or a contact that does not coincide with his information in the radar screen, he orders an identification mission,” said Izurieta.
Only the Navy has control of UAVs in Ecuador. The Direction of Maritime Spaces orders daily missions for the identification of vessels. That ID process is similar to a traffic stop.
Once a vessel has been identified by the aircraft, if there is illegal activity the Coast Guard determines how to proceed. On average, Ecuador identifies 20 to 30 vessels per day, said Izurieta.
“If there is some sort of illicit activity, the Coast Guard proceeds with the interdiction,” said Izurieta. “If the Coast Guard is far away, we keep an eye on the vessel until they arrive. Then, we stay close for support and monitoring.”
This type of technology is good since it provides the expected results and improves the performance of the missions. Case and point in the region of Waziristan with Al Qaeda. I think it's a very interesting and very novel system available for these people. You can say they have plenty of money, and everything has a price. This technology is efficient because it allows identifying, locating, tracking and capturing felons by recording them to keep track of their actions to avoid justice, get rid of the bodies and other criminal instruments. I think the help provided by these planes to the authorities in the fight against drugs and contraband is very interesting. It's a success for the authorities. It's good.