Mexico is getting high on drones.
A lack of strict aerospace regulations combined with a growing manufacturing and aerospace industry could turn the country into the drone capital of Latin America. Mexico recently opened the first drone pilot academy in region, and now hopes to become a global competitor in the high-flying industry.
“We saw a wave of consumers buying drones, but they didn’t know how to operate them,” Jose Luis Gonzalez, director of Mexico’s Drone Academy and CEO of Unmanned Systems, told Fusion. So he opened a drone academy in Mexico City and began offering a 9-hour course. They've already graduated 50 drone pilots in less than a year.
It's part of why Mexico is fast becoming an ideal testing ground for the development of drones, Gonzalez says.
“Mexico has low production costs and there’s skilled labor that can turn the nation into a key player in the drone industry,” he said. “There’s a big entrepreneurial spirit here.”
Gonzalez isn't the only one developing the Mexican market. A local company known as Unmanned Systems Technology International has released a drone known as MX-1, which is being marketed as “a proudly Mexican aircraft backed by thousands of hours of conceptualization, design, prototyping and flight tests,” according to its website. The MX-1 drone can allegedly fly for up to seven consecutive hours and reach a cruising speed of 68 mph. Other companies such as 3D Robotics are also fabricating drones in Mexico.
Mexico is also finding new uses for drones, from protecting endangered animal species to improving agricultural practices and preventing forest fires. Earlier this month a group of researchers announced they will be using drone photography to enhance land cultivation and fertilization techniques.
The Mexican government is reportedly using drones to monitor crime-ridden areas, develop naval operations, and monitor some of the country’s state-owned oil pipelines.
There's also been innovation by the criminal world. Some narcos are now apparently using drones to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
And then there's singer Enrique Iglesias foolishly cutting his fingers while trying to grab a hovering drone during a concert in Tijuana —an incident that fits into a category all its own.
Overall, Mexico has embraced drone technology quicker than other countries in the region. In May many chilangos flocked to Mexico City’s first drone expo to learn about the development and use of the so-called multirotor drones.
The government shares the public's enthusiasm. Last March, Mexico’s Aerospace Navigation Service commissioned a video shot by a drone flown over Mexico City’s airport. “It turned out wonderful. We’ve gotten rave reviews,” air traffic controller Alejandro Ruiz de la Fuente told the Washington Post. “We know that back in the United States it’s not allowed.”
While drones have an increasingly military connotation in the U.S., in Mexico and many parts of Latin America drones are mostly viewed as fun, useful and educational tools. In Peru drones are reportedly being used to monitor archeological sites, while in Chile some universities have begun offering courses in piloting. Brazil is using drones to help protect the Amazon.
But drone fun is also creating new problems. Argentina's government recently moved to protect people's privacy by regulating the use of drones to prevent candid photographs and videos shot from above.
Now the U.S. could spoil some of the fun if it continues to militarize drone use in Latin America. The United States Southern Command or SOUTHCOM has already deployed unarmed drones on joint military exercises and missions in Central and South America. The war on drugs also appears to be prompting Latin America to ramp up the use of U.S.- and Israeli-manufactured drones against traffickers.
“With regard to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), it is hard to predict the extent to which they’ll be employed to counter transnational organized crime in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility in the long-term,” Southern Commander spokesman Jose Ruiz told Fusion.
Ruiz said SOUTHCOM has “been able to periodically employ” a model known as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, but wouldn't offer details about the mission. “Operational security precludes us from discussing specifics, but when utilized by SOUTHCOM to support detection and monitoring operations, the RQ-4 is configured with non-lethal, surveillance capabilities; and missions that include time over the sovereign airspace of a partner nation are closely coordinated with the host-nation government through the U.S. embassy before being approved and scheduled.”
Alejandro Sanchez, a drone expert at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs, told Fusion there have been occasions when unarmed U.S. drones have entered Mexican airspace. “A U.S. drone helped triangulate the cellular network of drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, pinpointing his whereabouts for Mexican authorities,” he said.
So far, no U.S. drones flown over Latin American airspace have been known to be weaponized. But experts say it might be only a matter of time before there are armed drones circling the region.
Sanchez says based on the U.S. experience, Latin American militaries are realizing drones can change the tide of war. He thinks the lack of technological know-how might be the only binding constraint preventing Latin American countries from developing their own weaponized drones. “I think security forces in Latin America see drones favorably,” he said.
The U.S. recently passed legislation allowing the sale of armed drones to ally nations. And Sanchez thinks Mexico and Colombia could be the first countries in line to buy them.
Israel is also a major player in the drone industry. A 2014 report by COHA says Israel is the main provider of drones to Latin America, selling “some $500 million worth of drone technology to Latin American clients between 2005 and 2012.”
For now, Latin America's drone market remains unarmed and mostly unregulated.
“I think in Mexico and most of Latin America they are viewed as toys,” Sanchez said. “But there will be a point when we we’ll have to talk about privacy laws, drones flying in airports and residential areas. They are devices that can be used by reputable agencies, but also criminals.”
Fusion looks at how drone technology is changing the way we see the world in our special, Drone Nation. Click here to watch.