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How the feds chase down smugglers in the sky (pictures)

US Customs and Border Protection says it seized $4.6 billion in contraband in 2013, using P-3 Orions. CNET Road Trip 2014 got on board to see how it works.

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Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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1 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

P-3 Orion (Dome)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- If you're smuggling drugs into the US from Mexico by Cessna, you might think you've got a clear shot at crossing over undetected, but US Customs and Border Protection thinks otherwise.

Every day, CBP puts a fleet of aircraft into the skies in hopes of identifying, tracking, and ultimately interdicting smugglers coming in by air and by sea.

As part of Road Trip 2014, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman went to Texas and stopped by the CBP's National Air Security Operations Center -- Corpus Christi, and got on board one of the agency's P-3 Orions to see how the Feds track an unsuspecting smuggler in the skies.

Click here to read my full story on CBP's airborne operations.

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Slick

As part of a training exercise, this P-3 Orion Long Range Tracker (LRT) located and tracked a Cessna that was playing the role of a smuggler's plane flying over the Gulf of Mexico south of Corpus Christi. Then, to demonstrate its ability to sneak up on other planes, the aircraft, known as a "Slick," flew behind the P-3 Orion that CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman was in.

At first invisible -- it was below us and just to the left -- it then came up alongside and posed for this photo.

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3 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Manning three radar screens

Three CBP agents, including Senior Detection Enforcement Officer (Airborne) Tom Mason, in the foreground, monitor radar screens aboard the P-3 Orion while in flight over the Gulf of Mexico. The three were overseeing the exercise, watching the other two planes on their radar screens.

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Radar map

Mason's screen displays what the P-3's APS-145 radar was detecting in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the contacts on the screen are boats of one kind or another.

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APG-66

Found inside the nose cone of the P-3 LRT, this APG-66 air-to-air radar allows the Slick to lock on to target planes, letting agents on board the LRT decide whether the target is worth spending time following and investigating.

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SeaVue

This is a SeaVue surveillance radar system, mounted below the Slick. A surface-search radar system, it can identify a trash can in water from 50 miles away.

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7 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

WesCam MX-20

Mounted inside the nose cone of the P-3 LRT is this Wescam MX-20 optical system, which generates imagery that shows up in the signal coming in from the APG-66.

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Radar overlay

CBP agents like Tom Mason have many tools at their disposal as they work to interdict smugglers. One is the ability to overlay the radar information with a navigation map, allowing them to see precisely where a target is.

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9 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Mason watches radar

Mason monitors his screen to see the location of the P-3 LRT and the Cessna, as the two planes practice playing a cat-and-mouse game over the Gulf of Mexico.

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APS-145

This is the machinery that powers the APS-145 radar on board the P-3 Orion. The radar is the same early warning system the US military uses on E2-C Hawkeyes that fly off aircraft carriers.

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11 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

A 'Slick' banking hard right

After flying alongside the P-3 Orion high over the Gulf of Mexico, the P-3 LRT banks hard right to head back to base.

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12 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Flight crew

The flight crew of the P-3 Orion flies the plane over the Gulf of Mexico.

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CBP planes

A Customs and Border Protection P-3 LRT sits on the tarmac in Corpus Christi, Texas, with two P-3 Orions also parked nearby.

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Guardian

A Customs and Border Protection MQ-9 Guardian inside the agency's Corpus Christi hangar. The drone can fly up to 30,000 feet for 20 hours and monitor the border and other areas for illicit activity. The Guardian is essentially a Predator that's outfitted with additional radar and optics packages, such as the SeaVue.

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15 of 21 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Wescam MX-20

A Wescam MX-20 optics package is mounted underneath the Guardian. The mount includes various cameras and lasers used to identify and watch targets from as high as 30,000 feet.

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Guardian SeaVue

The SeaVue mounted underneath the Guardian allows the CBP to do surface searches from as far as 50 miles away.

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Predator

A CBP Predator drone sits in the agency's Corpus Christi hangar. The Predator has many of the same systems as the Guardian, but not the SeaVue.

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Predator Operations Center

CBP agents monitor and direct Predator surveillance flights from this control room at the agency's National Air Operations Center -- Corpus Christi offices.

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Mobile Predator operations center

CBP can take the Predator on the road, and can run flights from this operations center inside a small trailer that can be moved around on board an airplane.

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CBP

The Customs and Border Protection logo on the side of a P-3 LRT.

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CBP Building

The CBP's National Air Operations Center -- Corpus Christi building.

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