Going High Tech Against Ultralight Drug Smugglers


Going High Tech Against Drugs - Keep off the grassEnjoying your sport can be a little more challenging when your favorite way to fly also happens to be popular with criminals.

If you follow ultralight aircraft news, you’ve probably noticed that ultralights have long drawn scrutiny from U.S. officials concerned about their use by Mexican drug smugglers.

The feds upped the stakes with the Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012. The Act happens to have been the last piece of legislation sponsored by now-former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — and it rode to easy congressional passage earlier this year, in part out of sympathy and respect for Giffords after she survived being shot in the head. President Obama quickly signed the legislation into law.

The law closed a loophole that had treated the use of ultralight aircraft in drug smuggling differently than use of larger aircraft. Now, an ultralight’s use for that purpose can result in a 20-year jail sentence and up to $250,000 in fines.

“Between 2009 and 2011, more than 600 suspected ultralight aircraft were detected crossing the border, and nearly 400 were confirmed, according to CBP data,” CNN reported earlier this year.

In August, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reportedly spent nearly $100 million for a real-time detection system that can spot ultralight aircraft — which have a small radar signature — along America’s southern border.

Currently, the system’s developer, New York-based SRC Inc., describes the product’s capabilities on its website: “At its core, the VantagePoint system delivers complete 360 degree, short and long range ground and air surveillance…It can detect and track people, vehicles, and low and slow aircraft, such as UAS and ultralights.”

SRC says VantagePoint can be configured to include “electronic negation capabilities to its already robust air surveillance and tracking features.”

Ouch. We don’t know what “electronic negation” means, but it sounds unpleasant.

The take-aways for ultralight pilots: know the latest laws affecting your sport, exercise extreme caution when flying near border areas — and steer clear of the bad guys.

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