Building A Virtual Wall To Protect Our Borders

July 19, 2007
Planned electronic walls on the nation’s borderlines will use the latest surveillance, sensor, and communications tools. But can technology alone take the place of sturdy physical barriers?

It will be situated on the nation's borders, designed to prevent people from illegally entering the U.S. But please, don't call it a wall. SBInet, part of the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative, is an integrated surveillance system that aims to curb illegal immigration without the need to construct a politically controversial physical wall.

SBInet's primary goal is to give U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) improved oversight of thousands of miles of international frontier, says Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a defense and homeland security think tank. "The idea is to look at ways that technology can enhance the operations of federal forces at the border," he says. "It's essentially to enhance the operations of the Border Patrol."

But as construction gets under way, observers wonder if technology—even the most advanced surveillance tools available—can substitute for physical barriers and vigilant Border Patrol officers.

"This has not been done before," says Goure. "What you actually have now is an experimental process."

TECHNOLOGY SMORGASBORD Last September, Boeing beat out rivals Ericsson, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon to become SBInet's prime contractor, and it plans to leverage the expertise and capabilities of scores of subcontractors to meet the project's goals. In a published statement, the company says it will deploy an "appropriate mix and amount of systems along border areas that are between points of entry to detect those \[people and vehicles\] approaching the border."

Under SBInet, border enforcement will be divided into sectors, each with a local command center. The technology will be used to detect, monitor, and classify potential and actual border-crossers. When a breach is detected, the system will alert command centers to dispatch agents to the scene.

Although the government envisions SBInet eventually protecting some 6000 miles of border with both Mexico and Canada, it's kicking off this year with Project 28, a 28-mile long test deployment near Tucson, Ariz. The trial will use the most extensive arsenal of advanced surveillance tools ever deployed. Boeing and its partners will supply technologies to SBInet that fall into five basic categories:

• Ground-based and tower-mounted sensors, cameras, and radar
• Fixed and mobile telecommunications systems
• Ground-penetrating detecting systems
• Command and control center equipment
• Information database and intelligence analysis systems

LAND AND AIR SBInet's centerpiece, and certainly its most visible component, will be a series of 98-foot tall mobile towers (Fig. 1). Each tower will be studded with surveillance devices, including motion detectors, a telephoto camera, thermal imaging, radar, and wireless access points. Although each tower will cost upward of several million dollars, the structure is relatively cheap compared to its alternatives.

"You put it up, add some self-protection measures, and call it a day," Goure says. "You don't have to worry about pilots, bad weather, downtime, and all that kind of stuff."

A key tower technology is the Manportable Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar (MSTAR). Developed by DRS Technologies, MSTAR is designed to serve as a flexible, low-power ground-surveillance radar, providing wide-area (360°) surveillance day and night and in all weather conditions. Its primary task is to locate moving targets, automatically classifying the objects as people, tracked or wheeled vehicles, helicopters, or boats.

Another crucial tower technology is the Long-Range Reconnaissance and Observation System (LORROS) camera from Kollsman (Fig. 2). It provides longrange daytime and nighttime surveillance. The camera can be manually controlled or set up to receive input from MSTAR to scan areas where the radar detects activity. After detecting an object, the camera transmits its images to a central computer for identification.

The exact type and number of devices included on any particular tower will vary, depending on the local terrain, climate, population density, and other factors. The unmanned towers are designed to give border patrol officers unprecedented monitoring resources along borders that are currently delineated in many remote areas by nothing more than a wobbly barbed-wire fence.

Nine towers will be deployed within the 28-mile long test area. Like the towers to follow, the structures will be in constant wireless contact with command centers and Border Patrol vehicles equipped with laptop computers. The towers will be placed in locations targeted to maximize their coverage range, though the structures are designed to reposition to alternate sites if they're needed in another area. Boeing estimates it will require some 1800 towers to cover both borders.

DHS will augment the towers with other land- and air-based surveillance technologies. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for instance, will fly over areas where tower installation would be impossible or impractical due to terrain or logistical issues. Each UAV will incorporate a scaled-down complement of sensors that are similar to the kind used on the towers.

Boeing tapped Elbit Systems of Haifa, Israel, to supply its Skylark, a hand-launched UAV (Fig. 3). Back on Earth, detection devices like seismic and pressure sensors will be deployed to sense footsteps and moving vehicles. "Unattended ground sensors \[are located\] in areas that are very difficult for radar to operate in because of ground clutter or interference from mountains," Goure says.

The SBInet strategy also includes border agents. In addition to laptop-equipped vehicles, agents are set to receive Iridium satellite phones, which can work along both national borders without any coverage gaps (Fig. 4).

"In the border areas, there's not a lot of terrestrial communications infrastructure that can be leveraged," says Scott Scheimreif, assistant VP for government programs at Iridium Satellite.

The phones can be connected to an agent's laptop to exchange data with the command center or a laptop inside another Border Patrol vehicle. The Iridium satellite constellation also provides central command with the precise geographical position of each phone user.

"The information becomes valuable when a trigger goes off and headquarters needs to send the closest available agent to investigate," says Scheimreif.

WILL IT WORK? While SBInet will incorporate a wide array of technologies during its initial phase, none are particularly cutting-edge or experimental. "Much of this pilot SBInet is based on commercially available, mature, stable technology," says Steve Bither, chief technology officer of Stanley, a government systems and services provider.

Bither notes that developing an infrastructure that uses only tested technologies will help Boeing keep costs down by eliminating the surprises and delays that emerging technologies typically create. As the project moves forward, however, Boeing may adopt a DARPA-like approach and begin sponsoring SBInet-relevant research projects.

Despite all of the money and expertise being poured into SBInet, many critics are skeptical that the project can live up to its promise of securing the nation's borders. Richard Sterk, electronics group leader and analyst for Forecast International, a military electronics market research and analysis firm, says that only two border areas in history have been successfully protected with surveillance technologies.

"That was West Berlin/East Berlin and the North Korean demilitarized zone," he notes. "And the reason those two worked is \[because\] they had unlimited funding." Boeing, on the other hand, will have no more than $2.5 billion to complete the project within its three-year time frame.

Even if the system can be installed on time and within budget, some observers wonder about the technology's long-term physical durability and resistance to vandalism. A big concern is that devices failing prematurely could drive SBInet's cost substantially higher.

"They \[Boeing and DHS\] think it's reliable in terms of being out there in the heat and all the rest," Goure says. "But experimentation will tell whether you need more cooling, additional hardening to prevent people from messing with the tower, and that sort of thing."

The towers' primary security technology is a detection system that's connected to a pair of "loud-hailer" horns. The horns can blast a voice command or warning from an agent at headquarters. The speakers require manual operation, though, and aren't activated automatically when tampering is detected.

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