NOGALES, Ariz. (AP) -- 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.