SBINet eyes 'intelligent fences' for the border

Plans aim to shorten the delay from sensor to sheriff

Greg Giddens says this is not your mother's picket fence.

Rick Steele

The Homeland Security Department's SBInet program, a key technology element of its Secure Border Initiative, is looking to deploy 'intelligent fences' and other IT components as part of a defense-in-depth plan.

SBInet program manager Greg Giddens of DHS' Customs and Border Protection said the department recently issued a task order for a new Fence Laboratory in Texas.

The lab will include experts from the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories, the Texas Transportation Department and SBINet integrator Boeing Co. 'to assure that we are building the right kinds of fences,' Giddens said.

This isn't your mother's picket fence, he said. He explained that border fences vary according to the topography and local surroundings.

Giddens said the terrain SBInet would cover is varied.

'If you've seen one mile of border, you've seen one mile of border,' Giddens said, to characterize the wide variety of conditions the program faces.

The Fence Laboratory will study intelligent fences that include sensors to detect and distinguish among various kinds of sound and motion, such as the wind or people crossing the border illegally, Giddens said.

He cautioned that putting too much of SBInet's technology right along the border could be a mistake. Doing so would drain IT resources from other phases of the problem in other areas of the country.

At some points along the border, much 'dumber' barriers can help a lot, according to SBInet officials.

Smugglers sometimes steal a car in Arizona, drive it to Mexico, fill it with drugs and illegal migrants, and race back across the border until the car runs out of gas or breaks down.

To foil that method, DHS plans to position vehicle barriers, reportedly including engineered ditches, along some sections of the border.

Other places such as urban areas call for pedestrian fences of various kinds, Giddens and other SBI officials said.

Giddens noted that SBInet and its chosen integrator, Boeing Co., are working together using the company's 'border calculus' approach to border management.

In border calculus, officials analyze the distance in space and lag in time between an illegal immigrant's entry and an imaginary line, beyond which the Border Patrol's interception capability almost vanishes.

Among desolate mountains or in deserts along the border, that 'sensor-to-sheriff' gap represented by the distance between the border and the imaginary line of migrant escape into the interior can stretch for miles and days of foot travel.

At border regions within cities, the imaginary line comes very close to the border, and a migrant who gets only a few blocks away from the border can hop a bus and ride to safety. 'The clock starts when they cross the border, not when we find out about it,' Giddens said.

The sensor-to-sheriff gap drives the SBInet program managers' effort to put advanced devices providing continual data streams into the hands of Border Patrol agents.

Giddens contrasted that scenario with the current situation, in which the relevant data describing, say, a group of migrants or smugglers lurking near a Border Patrol officer appears on the 'big screen of knowledge' at a command center.

With current 'brick radio' techniques, the command center dispatchers can provide the Border Patrol agents in the field with only fragmentary, often delayed voice updates on the location and activities of smugglers and alien groups.

The command centers' images can come from pole-based cameras or, potentially, from cameras or infrared sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles.

Going mobile

SBInet officials intend to put that video data stream in Border Patrol agents' handheld devices or vehicle PCs.

'If it was your son or daughter [in the Border Patrol] out there in the night facing a group of smugglers, wouldn't you want them to have the best information available?' Giddens asked.

Giddens said the migrant apprehension rates, especially for a category called Other than Mexican or OTM immigrants, showed declines from 2005 to 2006.

'But there's a lot of money made in this [smuggling] business,' Giddens said. 'I don't think they are going to go quietly.'

Giddens predicted that 'friction' or violent conflict will result as gangs that have seen their favored stretches of border sealed off shift into zones now controlled by other gangs.

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