5 Investigates

Drug smugglers using the skies as smuggling routes

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A licensed drone operator demonstrates a takeoff A licensed drone operator demonstrates a takeoff
NOGALES, AZ (CBS5) -

Over the past week, aerial smugglers have twice dropped bales of marijuana from small, homemade planes onto Arizona soil.

While agents from the U.S. Border Patrol are on the lookout for more airborne smuggling attempts, there is some indication that drug cartels are at least experimenting with even smaller aircraft.

In January, a small remote-controlled drone loaded with crystal meth crashed just south of the border in Tijuana. At the time, DEA agents said they did not believe the incident represented a new trend in smuggling, but the drones could be useful to drug trafficking organizations.

The most recent ultralight incidents in Arizona included a total of more than 400 pounds of marijuana, according to a Border Patrol statement. Both incidents occurred near Yuma.

Border Patrol officials tell CBS 5 Investigates they have no reports of drones being used to smuggle drugs. But past statements indicate they are aware the drones may be in use by smuggling organizations to carry high-dollar drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, or to conduct surveillance on Border Patrol agents along the border.

Drone operators say technology is advancing to the point where drones will soon be able to carry enough of a payload to make them viable smuggling vehicles. In the meantime, they are already ideal for spying.

"There's no question that the drones are relatively easy to operate," said Domingo DeGrazia, who is a licensed pilot and drone operator. "They're quick out of the box to fly. They do have some potential for a payload. And there is the ability to see where the aircraft is going through first-person viewing."