The federal government is poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new technology to secure the border. One major contract is for surveillance towers that use cameras and radar to detect activity in the desert.
"Our agents can then determine whether that sweep is picking up, whether it is an animal, whether it is a person, whether it is a vehicle."
Some of the most advanced technology on the border is on display at the Joint Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center for Customs and Border Protection in Tucson. In many way it is a model for what is to come elsewhere on the border.
About 20 agents sit at desks facing large video monitors. When they fly drones over remote patches of desert, this is where the video comes in. Today the monitors show what cameras on the border fence see. Agent Mark Mitchell points to one monitor that looks black and white, but is actually displaying heat. He says this is an added tool for agents. "It will help them see people hiding in the bushes a little easier, versus the day camera, they can get lost in the brush."
Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, wouldn’t allow me to visit the building next door-- but that is where agents receive information from over a dozen surveillance towers in the desert that use both cameras and radar. They are called, “integrated fixed towers,” their radar sweep for drug smugglers and illegal border crossers, and they transmit video.
Those fixed towers were originally put up by the contractor Boeing. They are still functional, but the bigger project Boeing tried to create-- an elaborate virtual fence called SBI Net that would integrate radar, cameras and sensors all along the Southwest border -- was deemed a failure. Thad Bingel is with Command Consulting in Washington, and used to be the Chief of staff at CBP. He says the issue with SBI Net was that it was overly ambitious.
There were missed deadlines, system bugs and high costs. After pouring a billion dollars into it without the expected results, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cancelled SBI Net in 2011. And it prompted CBP to rethink how it approaches border technology.
“It really caused an examination within the agency, of going back and saying, ‘OK, we tried to design a system that did a lot of things, but didn’t do it all very well, so let’s focus instead on what we do actually need in these different places,” says Bingel.
What they’ve decided they need in Southern Arizona is a $1.5 billion dollar plan over a decade that includes more cameras and more integrated fixed towers. This summer, CBP already awarded General Dynamics $96 million to do the remote video surveillance piece. And the competition for the contract to put up more integrated fixed towers is heating up. The exact dollar figure is unknown, but it’s likely to be in the neighborhood of several hundred million. It will be the single biggest ground surveillance contract since SBI Net. But this time, the contracting process had changed.
Mark Borkowski works for CBP’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. That’s a new office set up to prevent SBI Net size mistakes. This time, CBP doesn’t want to see just paper proposals. Half a dozen finalist companies had to build a model, and prove their towers work ... on their own dime. The agency wants the fixed towers to be able to spot a single person walking in the desert during the day or night up to about seven miles away.
This June the finalists, which reportedly include Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, showed off their towers in the desert. According to Borkowski, they were tested on “how far can your camera see, how far can your radar see, and how confident, how likely that if there is something out there, it will actually see it, we call that probability of detection.”
Some outside analysts are applauding the agency for taking a more risk averse approach. Werner Dahm directs a security research institute at Arizona State University.
“Having something that works and is in place, and can do the job well, is better than something that is maybe more spectacular from a technology point of view, but that ultimately doesn’t end up working.”
CBP is expected to name a winner for the integrated fixed towers contract by the end of the year.