CBP wants system to detect ultralights smuggling drugs

Officials report an increase in the number of attempts to move narcotics into the United States using the small aircraft, which avoid radar detection by flying low.

The Homeland Security Department wants to purchase technology that can detect slow-moving, low-flying aircraft -- typically called ultralights -- that Mexican cartels use to smuggle drugs into the United States, according to a draft request for proposals released last week.

The system will be used to detect ultralights, which are small one-person planes that are typically not much more than a hang glider equipped with an engine. Drug smugglers have been relying more on the small aircraft, which can easily avoid radar detection, to move illegal drugs into the United States.

In May, two Air Force fighter jets intercepted an ultralight that crossed into Arizona, then turned and flew back into Mexico after 30 minutes of being shadowed. In March 2009, law enforcement authorities in San Luis, Ariz., found an ultralight that crashed in a lettuce field. Still strapped into the aircraft was the body of the pilot and more than 100 pounds of marijuana, according to a USA Today article.

"The intent . . . is to acquire a system that is able to use existing sensor technology to detect and track these aircraft," Customs and Border Protection said in a synopsis of the solicitation first posted in June.

CBP officials plan to buy an existing system rather than one in development so they can immediately begin using the technology, according to the latest draft RFP, which was released Sept. 9.

The system must be able to transmit real-time data to the Air and Marine Operations Center in Riverside, Calif., where it will integrate with other networks and provide remote-control capability.

The technology will be deployed at existing CBP facilities and in remote locations where external power or communications infrastructure might not be available, according to the RFP. The system should include its own power and communications package, and be transportable and rugged enough to withstand weather and the steep terrain along the border.

DHS expects to award a firm fixed-price, indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contract. The RFP did not include a potential cost for the system. Proposals are due by 3 p.m. on Oct. 19.