The border, as seen looking north from Mexico into Imperial Beach in San… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
U.S. border authorities have awarded a $99.9-million contract to a New York-based company to develop a radar system to detect low-flying ultralight aircraft used to smuggle drugs from Mexico.
The solo-piloted aircraft that resemble motorized hang gliders are difficult to detect with conventional radar technology and can carry payloads up to 250 pounds.
The planes fly slowly above areas from San Diego to Arizona, dropping their loads of marijuana before escaping to Mexico. More than 700 incursions, at least two of which occurred over San Diego's Interstate 8, have been reported since the trend began in 2008.
The Department of Homeland Security awarded the contract last week to SRCTec, a defense contractor that specializes in advanced radar systems. It will build nine ultralight aircraft detection systems for about $7 million in the first phase of a deal that includes options to extend for 10 years, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in an interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard. The systems are to be delivered in February, Schumer said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection monitors the nation's air traffic from the Air and Marine Operations Center at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. Although largely successful against general aviation smuggling, radar operators have difficulty detecting ultralights. The aircraft fly as low as 500 feet, and their small frames are hard to distinguish from trucks. Many appear, then disappear from radar screens.
Authorities have had some success. The pilots usually fly at night and no longer land on U.S. soil after authorities began responding quickly to off-loading sites. In Arizona, where the vast majority of the flights occur, authorities have arrested at least 36 people in connection with ultralight smuggling, most of them ground crew members who load the dropped marijuana into cars.