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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Drones and Port Security in Brownsville: A Case Study on the Gulf

Drones are increasingly recognized as a feature of the contemporary operational environment. Indeed, drones—of all types: aerial, waterborne (maritime), and ground (surface and subsurface) are increasingly present in military operations demonstrating their potential future influence in criminal and terrorist activities. Indeed, drones, including consumer or commercial off-the-shelf, aerial drones (unmanned aerial systems or UAS) have become a significant presence in the Ukraine War, with drones of all types currently active in the Gaza conflict. This brief report summarizes the findings of recent research on drone threats at ports. Specifically, this article discusses a threat assessment of the Port of Brownsville sponsored by the Institute of Homeland Security at Sam Houston State University. 

Current and Emerging Threat Environment

Drones present both threats and opportunities.  The current popular appreciation of drones is largely focused on aerial drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or systems (UAS). Recently, the threat potential from small UAS (sUAS) at sports venues has come to light as a drone incursion at an Ohio State-Maryland college football game highlighted the security vulnerability of drone incursions over stadiums. This vulnerability is potentially exacerbated by gaps in threat awareness and current federal law. Indeed, the threat to stadiums and high-density public gatherings was the focus of an earlier series of three drone threat papers (one of framing the issue, one on operational perspectives, and one technical integration for response) sponsored by the Institute of Homeland Security. 

Beyond that, aerial drones have been weaponized by Mexican cartels to attack their rivals and state security forces, used to smuggle drugs across the US-Mexico border and contraband into correctional facilities. Drones are also increasingly considered as terrorist threats after armed drones were used in an attempt to assassinate Venezuelan President Maduro and a swarm of 13 artisanal weaponized drones attacked Russian military bases in 2018. 

As I write this synopsis, US forces were reportedly targeted by explosive-laden drones in Syria (many more are a daily or near-daily occurrence in conflict zones ranging from Ukraine, to Gaza, to the crime wars in Mexico and Brazil). Nacrodrones are already a persistent feature on the border as cartels and gangs use drones as tools for gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) on the border. As aerial drones dominate threat perceptions, uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs), as well as, uncrewed surface and underwater vessels (collectively uncrewed maritime vessels or UMVs) are also becoming a fixture in contemporary armed combat; not to mention narco-smuggling as uncrewed narcosubs are being used to smuggle drugs across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe. Finally, drone swarms may potentially become a future concern as states armed non-state groups become proficient in exploiting emerging artificial intelligence technology.

Why Drones and Ports? 

Ports are critical components of a nation’s infrastructure.  Seaports are centers of commerce and move goods and material from the sea so it can be transshipped by rail and trucks throughout the nation. As such, ports are vital economic assets, and play a key role in not only the economy, but also in food security, and energy (oil and gas) enabling other economic sectors (energy, information, etc.) and defense. Ports also are key venues and major pathways in global illicit trade. In addition, maritime infrastructure security breeches are becoming a “common occurrence.” As we discovered during our literature review and site surveys, ports (like the Port of Brownsville), may potentially face the full range of drone threats (UAS, UGV, UMV or collectively UxS) in the future. 

The research team was comprised of Dr. John P. Sullivan, a retired law enforcement officer with counterterrorism experience, Mr. George Davis, an experienced geospatial analyst, and Mr. Tom Adams, a retired federal law enforcement officer with counter-UAS experience. The team’s technical paper was subject to senior review by Dr. Rich Rotanz, an experienced senior emergency manager. The following abstract provides an overview of the assessment’s scope:

This technical paper recounts a geospatial drone security assessment for the Port of Brownsville, Texas (Brownsville Navigation District). The Port of Brownsville is a major intermodal transportation center and is expanding into a major venue for industrial development. The Port of Brownsville is the only deep-water port directly on the US-Mexico Border. The drone assessment will evaluate the threats posed by aerial drones/unmanned or uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) to the port; assess the potential effects of drones on port operations and port security; suggest potential counter measures (counter-UAS); provide an introduction to emerging drone threats, including unmanned/uncrewed vessels and ground vehicles; and drone swarms (or swarming attacks). The impact of various drone threats with port operations is discussed. Mechanisms for enhancing indications and warning, detection, and response to drone threats on the Port of Brownsville, and potential vehicles for sharing these threat data with other ports, port security personnel, law enforcement, and emergency responders will be discussed.

The Port of Brownsville (POB) is situated on the Gulf of Mexico, and handles a range of cargoes, including various steel products, iron ore, grains, sugar, minerals, windmill components, and especially hydrocarbons (including gasoline, diesel, and lube oil).  The port also handles containerized cargo, has facilities for dismantling vessels. The POB, one of 17 ports in Texas, is at the southern end of the 17 mile-long Waterway near the mouth of the Rio Grande and is served by the deep-water Brownsville Ship Channel which accesses the Gulf of Mexico, passing between several barrier islands. The POB is served by its own Port of Brownsville Police and the United States Coast Guard.  The POB is 8 miles (13km) north of the Mexican border. The drone security assessment included a literature review, geospatial assessment of the port’s terrain features, and an assessment of aerial drone sensor data for the port and environs.  In addition, the assessment team conducted a two-day site survey, conducted three focus group sessions (1 each for Port of Brownsville Personnel; Port of Brownsville Tenants; and the POB’s Public Safety Partners).  The site visit was augmented by follow on discussions and a survey to gauge threat perceptions of the various potential drone threats to the POB. The methodology employed and specific findings are detailed in the technical paper.

Drones and Port Security in Brownsville: A Case Study on the Gulf Homeland Security Today

Drone Flight Paths Depicted with Red Lines in Vicinity of the POB 

(Courtesy Aerial Armor, a Dedrone Company)

Synopsis of Findings

The drone risk assessment determined that stakeholders at the port rated Uncrewed Aerial Drones (UAS) as the highest perceived threat at 7.0 high (on a 10 point scale with 10 the highest); Uncrewed Ground vehicles (UGVs) as 3.67 low; Uncrewed Maritime Vehicles–Surface (UMVs-Surface) as 6.7 Moderate; and Uncrewed Maritime Vehicles–Surface (UMVs-Surface) as 6.0 Moderate. In addition to threat perceptions, the team provided a geospatial analysis of the port facilities and observed UAS traffic proximate to the port (7,948 flights in the area of interest during the period studied, using data provided by Aerial Armor, a Dedrone Company from June 2022 through July 2023. The type drones detected were also categorized. The drones detected were all COTS UAS produced by DJI (SZ DJI Technology Company, located in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China).

Specifically the drone risk assessment found that:

  • The highest level of current drone threat involves small Uncrewed Aerial Systems (sUAS).  That threat is assessed as Moderate to High. The level of sUAS threat can be expected to grow as the Port of Brownsville expands and increases it activity.
  • The next potential level of threat involves Uncrewed Maritime Vessels (UMVs), including surface and subsurface vessels. These are currently evident in military settings or used by criminal cartels to smuggle drugs. These vessels can be weaponized and are likely to become a future factor in port operations. This threat is assessed as Moderate, with the potential to grow as the use of these vessels increases and the port grows.
  • The lowest level of threat is posed by Uncrewed Ground Vehicles (UGVs). This threat is assessed as LowModerate. While UGVs have been used in combat (specifically in Ukraine), and remotely piloted vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) have been used by terrorists in the Middle East, these type devices are not currently in wide use in the civil sector. The UGV threat can be detected and mitigated with current defense-in-depth security measures already in place, such as perimeter fencing, cameras, and security patrols. 

Operational and Legal Issues

The project team also identified specific legal and operational issues of concern to ports in general and the Port of Brownsville in specific. These included the need for enhancing State and Local Law Enforcement authorities for addressing UAS threats, and incursions. Specifically, the report emphasized that: “SLTT agencies and critical infrastructure owners and operators are limited by federal laws that may prevent, limit, or penalize the sale, possession, or use of UAS detection and mitigation capabilities. The capabilities involved in detecting and mitigating UAS have the potential to raise concerns related to federal criminal laws concerning surveillance, unauthorized access or damage to computers, and aircraft damage.” Gaps and legal limitations in Texas state law were also discussed. In addition, recommendations for clarifying policy, standard operating procedures, training for public safety personnel, C-UAS technology acquisition, use of geospatial information systems (and Geospatial Intelligence or GeoINT) were discussed. 

Threat Warning and Analysis 

Finally, exploration of developing a drone threat information-sharing systems for drone threats, specifically UAS and UMV, to ports was advocated. Such a threat warning and analysis effort could build a baseline of current threats and intrusions that can inform threat assessment and incident response internally and ultimately linked with regional efforts such as the Texas Fusion Center and its Infrastructure Liaison Officer (ILO) Program and then expanded throughout Texas Ports, at Gulf Ports, nationally, and internationally


Drone threats, including aerial (USAS), maritime (UMV), and ground drones (UGV) can be expected to become a salient maritime and port security concern.  On-going efforts to understand the treat, share threat information, develop operational response capacity and legal authorities to meet the evolving threats are critical. Ports, port police, and critical infrastructure protection efforts for the maritime sector (and all the sectors that it intersects with) would benefit from similar drone risk assessments,  That said, threats are only one part of the picture, unmanned systems (UxS) also can bring significant operational advantage to all facets of port operations, security, and humanitarian or emergency response. Developing a comprehensive drone response posture is therefore a multifaceted, yet beneficial undertaking. 

Additional Reading

John P. Sullivan, George W. Davis, and Tom Adams, “Drones and Port Security at the Port of Brownsville.” Sam Houston State University, Institute for Homeland Security, (Report No. HIS/CR-2023-1001),2023. 

Robert J. Bunker, “Weaponized Aerial Drones and the Homeland: Increasing Domestic Terrorism Concerns.” Homeland Security Today, December 29, 2022.

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Criminal Drone Evolution: Cartel Weaponization of Aerial IEDs. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2021.

Dr. John P. Sullivan
Dr. John P. Sullivan
Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer, now retired. Throughout his career he has specialized in emergency operations, terrorism, and intelligence. He is an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California, Senior El Centro Fellow at Small Wars Journal, and Contributing Editor at Homeland Security Today. He served as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, where he has served as a watch commander, operations lieutenant, headquarters operations lieutenant, service area lieutenant, tactical planning lieutenant, and in command and staff roles for several major national special security events and disasters. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He has a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia, an MA in urban affairs and policy analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a BA in Government from the College of William & Mary.

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