President Trump’s wall has received the overwhelming amount of public attention in discussions of security on the Southwest border. The focus has been on the idea of a physical wall. However, the responsible federal agency, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), has always invested in a range of technologies to supplement and even replace physical barriers. Border security is a challenging problem. There clearly is a role for walls and other physical barriers on some parts of the southwest border (such as between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico). But there are areas where it is too difficult, costly, or—even with advanced technology—unnecessary to build a wall. Technology has always played a key role in Borders Patrol’s strategy – being part of the three-legged stool which also includes Personnel and Tactical Infrastructure (i.e. physical barriers).
Recently, CBP awarded a contract to defense startup Anduril Industries for a new program of record called Autonomous Surveillance Towers (AST). This action has sparked no shortage of public commentary, hyperbolically being called by The Washington Post, NPR and others, the advent of the “virtual wall” along the southern U.S. border, which would eliminate the need for President Trump’s physical wall; characterized as a sort of technological revolution since it employs AI to automate the process of identification. It should be noted that CBP has for years successfully employed advanced sensor technologies and various kind of towers to monitor the border.
The current effort to deploy advanced surveillance technologies began over five years ago with the Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) systems deployed along the southern border. These are fixed towers topped with sophisticated cameras and sensors capable of seeing “long” ranges—past 10 kilometers. This system is mostly set back from the border and works well in rural areas where the distances are vast and the scenery monotonous. CBP has also deployed a significant number of fixed and relocatable towers equipped with sophisticated cameras and other sensors closer to the border as part of the Remote Video Surveillance System program.
Both of these systems have begun to incorporate AI to send only relevant intrusion events to Agents at the Border Patrol Command and Control centers. Once there, the data is further refined by AI into actionable intelligence. In addition, these systems, IFT in particular, form the basis for integrating the wide range of sensors deployed on the border, including those installed with the physical barrier as part of the Border Wall System, to form a common operating picture. This integration and the application of AI, reduces Agent workload and automate border security operations allowing Agents to return the field where they can conduct activities that can only be done by humans such as apprehensions.
In urban areas near major border cities like El Paso: shorter range systems, such as AST and mobile surveillance vehicles—may be preferred. In these situations, rather than large fixed towers, CBP wants trucks and trailers mounted towers that can be deployed to thwart the ever-changing routes of drug smugglers and human traffickers. Data from these sensors will also be fed to the common operating picture and provided to Agents in the field on their smartphones where it will be most useful.
It is worth noting that CBP also operates a variety of airborne surveillance platforms, both manned and unmanned aircraft. These platforms serve a number of roles: airborne early warning, wide area surveillance, maritime drug interdiction, intelligence collection and disaster assistance. Currently, CBP is testing smaller, vehicle-launched drones for rapid surveillance of high-threat areas.
The United States has nearly 7,000 miles of land border separating the U.S. from Canada and Mexico. It also has more than 9,000 miles of water—lakes, rivers, and seacoast—that similarly define America’s borders. These borders have distinct geographic features (mountains, valleys, deserts, forests) and environmental conditions (heat, dust, humidity, fog, cold, snow) that challenge the Border Patrol’s mission. The Anduril system cannot provide a one-size-fits-all solution. Fortunately, CBP is investing in other solutions too.
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