The drone, officially a Puma All Environment unmanned aircraft system from Aerovironment Inc. of Simi Valley, California, splashed into the water on one landing and had to be retrieved. On the second round, it clacked noisily but intact on the shifting deck of the 321-foot ship. Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, commander of the Navy's 4th Fleet, said the devices are necessary at a time when the service is making a transition to smaller, faster ships amid budget cuts.
The aerostat, formally the Aerostar TIF-25K and made by a division of Raven Industries Inc. of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is filled with helium. It's an old technology, models of which have been used for decades, but it's packed with cameras and sensors that expand the ship's radar capability from about 5 miles (8 kilometers) to about 50 miles. That can help teams in an on-board control center to identify larger ships, which now would appear as just dots on the horizon, from as far as 15 miles (25 kilometers) away.
The Puma, meanwhile, can be sent out to inspect a vessel flagged by the larger aerostat and give a "God's eye view," of what's happening on board, a job usually handled by a plane or helicopter, said Craig Benson, director of business development for the company.
Both the aerostat and the drone have been used widely by the U.S. government for overseas actions, but Harris and others aboard the Swift said neither has been used before by the Navy to conduct counter-drug operations.
Unmanned aerial devices, however, are not new to the drug fight. U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates 10 Predator drones, including two based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, that patrol a wide swathe of the Caribbean through the Bahamas and down to south of Puerto Rico. It deployed one to the Dominican Republic last year for six weeks and has considered using one in Honduras. The others are used along the northern and southern borders of the United States.