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Updated Jan 14, 2014 - 5:40 pm

Agency unveils robots that are sent into tunnels

NOGALES, Ariz. — The U.S. Border Patrol unveiled one of its weapons
Tuesday in the war on drugs: Three wireless camera-equipped robots that let
border agents remotely navigate the tunnels and storm drainage systems that
smugglers use to sneak drugs, guns and people across the border.

The agency is using the devices to keep agents out of harm’s way as many
tunnels can be poorly built and possibly collapse and lack proper ventilation.
The 12-pound robots also let agents navigate an underground labyrinth in a
fraction of the time it would take an agent to explore the tunnel. And the
devices can be used in tunnels and pipes where agents can’t fit.

“If we find a tunnel, we like to send a robot into clear the tunnel and
identify any threats, contraband, potential people with weapons and let the
agent know ahead of time if the tunnel is structurally sound,” said Border
Patrol Agent Kevin Hecht, an agency tunnel expert.

The Border Patrol held a demonstration of the devices Tuesday in the southern
Arizona border city of Nogales, where dozens of crude tunnels have been
discovered over the years. The tunnels discovered in Nogales have generally
begun in Mexico and have tied into the Arizona city’s storm drainage system.

Nearly 170 tunnels have been found nationwide since 1990, most along the
Arizona and California border with Mexico.

The tunnel robots have been in use by Border Patrol for several years. But the
agency recently paid $109,000 for the three new cameras with money from an asset
forfeiture fund, which comes from the seizure of property in criminal cases,
including drug cases involving cartel members, the Border Patrol said.

Two of the three robots will remain in southern Arizona, while the third is
headed to southern California, where immigration authorities have used a tunnel
robot for a number of years.

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