Zero-Emission Drug Smuggling Becomes A Thing

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Some recent court documents shed light on a drug organization’s fascinating attempt to create a zero-emission vehicle for their drug smuggling. If the project had been finished, it would have enabled smugglers to get drugs into Europe and eventually other places much more easily.

Background: The Cat & Mouse Game

It’s not uncommon to find drugs growing on public lands. I’ve run into this a couple times myself in my travels, and law enforcement see it all the time. If the drugs are growing at the criminal’s house, it’s easier to pin that person for the crime. When the drugs are on public lands and get found, nobody has any idea who owns the plants and thus who is breaking the law. It gives growers an opportunity to deny that it was theirs.

When moving illegal drugs internationally by sea, smugglers face similar problems. If drugs are found on your boat or in your container, then it’s hard to deny that the boat or container’s owner (or their employees, someone else involved) weren’t involved. Law enforcement and military officials who search boats are already aware of the most creative spots to hide contraband, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to find new hiding spots. Smugglers are even hiding drugs in ship propellers, because they’re that desperate.

This has led the drug business to try to find new ways to move drugs at sea. A small fast boat can’t escape helicopters easily, and even when they are faster, they can’t outrun .50-caliber anti-materiel rounds that Coast Guards can fire into their engines to disable them. Even if they can evade that, nobody outruns Motorola. A small boat evading a Coast Guard vessel, which can just radio to others who can intercept or surveil, will be caught.

This leads to some really sneaky James Bond movie stuff. Some smugglers are scuba diving under other people’s cargo boats and welding on metal boxes containing drugs. In many cases, nobody on the vessel knows that it’s happening (or they’re claiming this). This method of smuggling can move a lot of drugs, but law enforcement is getting wise to it, and is watching for divers at ports. The need to dive and weld makes it easy to get caught once the cops are looking for that activity.

Some boats moving divers around are even using battery-electric drives to increase their stealthiness in ports and other areas where ships are anchored or passing through slowly.

This leads to even more creative methods. Narco subs are nothing new, but if someone gets caught running a narco sub, they get arrested and that might lead to the organization getting exposed by law enforcement. To replicate the deniability of farming on public lands, narcotics smugglers are putting them in “torpedoes” either tied to the bottom of ships or towed behind/under the boat where it can’t be seen. If they think authorities are onto them, they can cut the torpedo loose and it will remain a few feet below the surface with a small tracking buoy that can be used for the smugglers to get it back later.

If police find it, they can’t tie it to any particular boat.

A Tech CEO’s “Torpedo” Drone

When a Michigan tech CEO decided to get into the drug business, he and his associates decided to take that concept of deniability to the next level. Court documents reveal that the organization was developing an “underwater drone” that could be remotely controlled. Instead of trying to cross the oceans themselves, the “torpedo” could maneuver itself under the boat and attach itself to the hull with magnets. Then, it takes a parasitic ride across the ocean. When it’s almost there, the drone would detach and emit a signal. The organization would then have fishing boats (already normally nearby) that they pay to retrieve the torpedo full of drugs.

A final CAD design that appeared in court documents. Photo by US DEA (public domain).

The CEO and the guy running most of the operation hired an unknown company to help develop this, and they made a lot of progress. The company was told they were developing a remotely operated vehicle for the purpose of scraping barnacles off of ship’s hulls, and didn’t know (or don’t want to admit that they knew) that they were helping develop a smuggling sub.

The final design was going to be 20-25 feet long, and have a 19.5’x4’x1′ area in which drugs could be stashed, which would give quite a bit of capacity. At the rear, it would have had two electrically-driven propellers. Court documents don’t spell the drive system out in any detail, but the design doesn’t appear to have any provision for intake, exhaust, or other ICE engine needs, leaving electric drive as the only option for the short trip to attach to a ship’s hull. Lithium batteries are the most likely choice for powering the drive system and electronics, along with tracking and control systems.


A small-scale prototype was completed by the company they hired, but the CEO died in a plane crash and left everyone in the organization hanging. Without financing, they project wasn’t carried on to building any full-scale models, and the man left running things scrambled to find replacement money before ending up in jail.

Had they completed it (or if someone else builds this), it would be very difficult for law enforcement to detect and track. They can’t really put in the effort and money to look under boats unless there’s already a compelling set of evidence that drugs may be there. Unlike welding divers, an electric remote-operated submarine doesn’t put off bubbles and make a bunch of noise, so attaching with magnets was a brilliant solution. Finally, but cutting loose from the ship away from shore, law enforcement can’t look for them in ports.

Why Even Cover Misuse Of Clean Technologies?

I know some readers are probably disgusted by the idea of drug smuggling and criminal organizations, but there is a very good reason to follow this.

As I pointed out in a previous article, the people using clean technology won’t always be doing it for good reasons, but even misuse of technology can be fascinating, though. Even when people are innovating to do illegal things, we can learn from them and even improve how we are doing good and legal things.

Automotive technology has, on occasion, benefited from people’s attempts to escape the law, most notably with the invention of better springs and engines. During prohibition, cops would look for vehicles that were squatting, the suspension struggling to carry the weight of an unusual load (100-180 gallons of “moonshine”). They’d then chase the smugglers down and arrest them. To get around this problem, smugglers made custom springs to level the vehicle out when carrying that extra weight in the back. Then, they’d improve the engine to produce more power to get away from the cops.

This automotive innovation led to racing between bootlegging runs, to test the vehicles and practice getting away. As it turns out, practicing getting away was a lot of fun, so some people got into stock car racing without getting into smuggling. Eventually, this led to professional racing and NASCAR, which has immeasurably benefited automotive safety.

Rear view mirrors, seat belts, disc brakes, roll cages, grippy tires, all-wheel drive, traction control, antilock brakes, headrests, better suspension systems, and crumple zones — all of these life-saving technologies were invented for the race track and later put in our street vehicles.

A Very Smart Solution With Legitimate Possibilities

Court documents didn’t make it clear where the concept came from, but whoever came up with it was pretty intelligent. A stealthy little submarine drone that attaches to boats with magnets would be nearly impossible to detect at any point in its journey. The use of electric drive in this case wasn’t to save the environment as much as to be stealthy, but it does show that internal combustion has many advantages due to not needing to pull in atmosphere and emit other gases.

There may actually be some legitimate uses for similar technology. A small electric motor could be a good thing for life rafts and other emergency escape vessels, for example. Even little sneaky subs could be useful for militaries, law enforcement, and resistance movements which are fighting illegitimate regimes in some parts of the world.

No technology is really good or bad as much as the people using or misusing it.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1996 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba