OFF THE FLORIDA COAST — They can spot the smile on a suspected smuggler's face from 10,000 feet in the air, record full-color video of his run for shore and simultaneously track 5,000 ships spread over hundreds of miles of ocean.
Flying above the Atlantic about halfway between Florida and the Bahamas, the latest addition to the government's anti-smuggling arsenal can track the trajectory of a boat leaving Cuba and compare it -- in seconds -- to every filed course plan for vessels on the water. If the boat seems suspicious, the computer will calculate course, speed and relative positions to tell the nearest Coast Guard vessel the bearings to follow to intercept it.
"With the old system, you were looking through a straw for a quarter on a card table," said Michael Ringgold, an air interdiction agent who worked with the engineers to develop the new system. "Now you're looking with your eyes open at the whole room."
Only two airplanes -- both belonging to the United States -- carry this combination of smuggler-spotting equipment and computer software. One belongs to the Miami office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The new computer can identify and filter out hundreds of legitimate cargo ships or boats within minutes. With the old system, it could take up to 10 minutes for a radar operator to manually identify a single vessel. The computer also matches the outline of any unidentified craft against its database to determine what type of vessel it is -- a freighter, sailboat or yacht, for instance. The time saved allows operators to concentrate on other suspicious targets.
"In a sense, you have an air-traffic control system for the ocean," said Blake Page, a Dallas-based radar expert.
The system proved itself while it was still in development last May, flying test missions aboard a Customs twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Dash 8 while engineers worked out kinks in the computer code.
Ringgold used the system's powerful camera to spot and record a boat near Cay Sal, Bahamas, with a suspicious tarp covering the back. With three clicks of a mouse, he was able to give the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Chandeleur the coordinates to intercept the boat, which carried 20 Cubans. On April 14, a Key West federal jury convicted Ricardo Espildora on 22 counts of human smuggling charges in the case.
Eventually, the anti-smuggling system will be carried in four more Dash 8s that are replacing smaller King Air 200s in the Customs fleet. The new planes can fly longer missions, up to eight hours versus the 4 1/2 of the smaller King Airs. The Dash 8s, which cost about $28 million each, also come with an improved satellite and camera system, officials said.
"It gives us a lot more capabilities," said Sanjeev Shinde, supervisor of the Dash 8 program.
The U.S. Department of Defense paid $15 million to develop the software, officials said.
On a recent flight out of Homestead Air Reserve Base, Ringgold studied a computer screen that showed a map of Florida's east coast and dozens of small squares representing potential targets across the water. At 1,500 feet, he was looking at a 44-mile radius of ocean. At 10,500 feet, the coverage increased to a 193-mile radius. The previous system's effective range was 32 miles.
Ringgold placed the cursor over a square and clicked. A window popped open, identifying the course of the Velopoula, a 748-foot ship; nothing to worry about. With a joystick, he maneuvered the airplane's camera to zoom in on a smaller vessel. A yacht floating near Andros Island, Bahamas, appeared in yet another window on the screen.
Then a 20-foot boat speeding far out in the water caught the crew's attention.
"There's usually not pleasure boats out this far," Ringgold said. Within seconds, though, he realized it was a Bahamian lobster fisherman with a bigger support vessel nearby.
It was a different story one day last fall, when interdiction agents spotted a boat with a "large number of people" on board floating next to another boat about 30 miles west of Andros. According to Customs officials, the agents watched and recorded as a third boat pulled up. By the time the boats started heading toward the United States, the Coast Guard had three cutters heading to intercept them.
The decoy and refueling boats stopped. The three-engine smuggling boat fled but didn't get away. During the chase, an immigrant on board hit his head and later died.
The captain and crewman pleaded guilty to a charge of human smuggling conspiracy that resulted in a death. On April 13, a federal judge sentenced them to nine years and nearly six years in prison, respectively.
Four suspects on the other boats fought human smuggling conspiracy charges. They said they were out fishing and didn't know any other boat was nearby. A federal jury found them guilty, and a judge sentenced each to 10 years in prison.
They couldn't escape the video recording and satellite information, agency officials said.