ultralightaircraft photo

An ultralight aircraftMilo Winningham/Flickr

In its continuing campaign to match the ingenuity of drug traffickers, the Department of Homeland Security has awarded a contract worth almost $100 million for a specialized system intended to detect ultralight aircraft used to secretly transport drugs.

Customs and Border Protection officials first began seeking such technology more than two years ago. Slow-moving aircraft flying at low altitudes, sometimes used by drug cartels for carrying narcotics, are difficult to identify by radar. The agency called them “an immediate, high-priority threat” and asked contractors for an existing sensor technology that could enable authorities to identify and monitor low-profile aircraft attempting to cross the nation’s borders.

Federal aviation regulators classify ultralights as any aircraft containing one seat, weighing up to 254 pounds and carrying 5 gallons of fuel.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security awarded a New York state company, SRCTec Inc., a $99.9 million contract to produce the system. The firm describes itself as having a “long history of developing air surveillance radar systems,” according to its website.

“In recent years, we have developed and have applied smart technology to monitor the airspace between countries’ borders, which now includes protection against non-traditional threats, such as remote-controlled aircraft,” the website says. “This type of threat is not easily detected by current air surveillance infrastructures.”

Plans called for transmitting data from the system to the Air and Marine Operations Center in Riverside, Calif., created during the 1980s to counter airborne drug smuggling. Officials want the new system to track as many as 25 “items of interest” at any time, be capable of operating during extreme weather and be easily transportable for deployment in remote locations.

The Department of Homeland Security pursued the technology as part of its Secure Border Initiative, first conceived during the Bush administration and continued under President Barack Obama to use 21st-century technology to help officers more readily identify illegal border crossers and expand the area of land they could secure effectively.

The initiative in the past suffered major setbacks when a planned high-tech “virtual fence” of radars, sensors and surveillance cameras didn’t meet expectations. Defense giant Boeing earned hundreds of millions of dollars from the program before Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano concluded that the virtual fence, known as SBInet, was “plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines.”

The name was dropped, but Washington has continued funding border surveillance technology, despite years of costly attempts that have fallen short and date back to the administration of President Bill Clinton. SBInet was envisioned to be a network of surveillance towers installed along the nation’s southwest border with Mexico that would feed data about potential threats to analysts in a command center-like setting. It covered only a small area of Arizona in the end.

Authorities meanwhile have plugged security gaps on the border with pricey drones costing between $18 million and $20 million each and thermal-imaging devices in truck beds that help Border Patrol officers spot smugglers and illegal crossers at night.

Lawmakers and the president earlier this year approved the last piece of legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., that targeted ultralights before she was seriously injured in a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011. The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012 sought to close a legal loophole by stiffening penalties for smugglers who use the aircraft for drug trafficking.

“The use of ultralight vehicles is yet another example of the extreme measures drug smugglers will use to get drugs into the United States,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a November announcement supporting the measure. “In just a six-month period, there were close to 200 reported incidents of use of these ultralight vehicles, and on relatively calm wind nights, Imperial County has experienced as much as four incidents per day.”

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.