Drug cartels are increasingly turning to low-cost drones to evade Border Patrol agents and smuggle drugs into the United States, according to recent reports.

Drones can be used in a variety of ways by cartels and smugglers, as reported by Fox News. Some are equipped with high-definition cameras and are used to scout smuggling routes. Some cartels are beginning to use commercial drones to easily bring drugs across the border without detection, dropping the drugs at a prescribed location and then returning sight unseen. When agents do manage to capture the drones, it is nearly impossible to trace where the device came from or who was operating it.

The number of drone flights into the U.S. is unknown, according to Smithsonian Magazine. A lack of technology to track and identify drones and a border force that is stretched thin have significantly contributed to the success cartels have had in using lightweight, cheap drones to smuggle quantities of drugs into the country.

“We have a lot of physical evidence and proof that there are a lot of these drug flights with drones,” Robbie Sen, an artificial intelligence and autonomy consultant who has worked with CBP since 2006, told Smithsonian in 2020. “But because of the lack of a methodology and a lack of sensors and trained observers, we cannot know how big the problem is. But what things we have seen suggests that the problem is much larger than anybody realizes.”

One problem for authorities is that the technology widely employed to track aircraft is all but useless when attempting to spot low-speed, low-altitude drones. Cartels have even begun to use decoy drones that are intended to be captured to distract from an actual drug shipment.

Drones are easy to purchase and can be bought piecemeal and then assembled. Small drones are capable of carrying up to 5 pounds at a time, while larger commercial drones can carry 44 pounds or more, per Drone Guru. Drones can be flown in groups from one controller, allowing smugglers to operate hundreds of drones simultaneously.

In January 2023, border agents in San Diego discovered drone footage made by human smugglers who were using the devices to identify the locations of agents in an effort to smuggle around 30 individuals into the country.

“Human smugglers using drones to surveil the Border Patrol is a growing trend that we’ve observed along the border,” said San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Aaron M. Heitke. “This technology provides transnational criminal organizations with new capability that they are eager to exploit.”

Aerial drones are not the full extent of the problem, either. In 2022, Spanish authorities captured underwater drones being used to smuggle drugs from Morrocco into Europe, the BBC reported. That same year, an underwater drone was captured by Colombian authorities loaded with four tons of cocaine.

The use of drones for smuggling operations is a growing problem that appears to have few if any easy answers. There is little in the way authorities can do to restrict the purchase or construction of drones, especially outside their jurisdictions, and the devices are difficult to detect.

In Texas, it is illegal to use drones for photography or surveillance of private citizens. At the same time, weaponized drones are being increasingly utilized by police departments in Texas under an exception to their prohibition by the Federal Aviation Administration, as reported by The Dallas Express.

Meanwhile, CBP agents have reported 170 drone incidents in the past five years, but the true number of drones being used for illicit purposes at the border could be much higher.