February 28, 2014

Tom Pittman has made a career as a Border Patrol agent here guarding this city’s underground drainage system, where the tunnels that carry sewage and storm runoff between the United States and Mexico are also busy drug-smuggling routes. Over the years, he has crawled and slithered past putrid puddles, makeshift latrines and discarded needles left behind by drug users, relying on instincts, mostly, to gauge the risks ahead.

It is a dirty and dangerous business, but these days, there is a robot for that.

Three robots, out of four in use by the agency along the entire southern border, are newly assigned to the Border Patrol station here. The reason is in the numbers: Most of the tunnels discovered along the border lead from Nogales, Mexico, to Nogales, Ariz., out of sight of the agents, cameras and drones that blanket the ground above. This month, federal agents closed the largest one found so far, a 481-foot passageway aired by fans and lit by lamps hanging from wires that ran along the tunnel’s walls.

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