Customs hunts air smugglers

Pilots carrying illegal cargo will find it more difficult to slip through
U.S. airspace undetected now that the Customs Service has nearly completed a three-year,
$17 million upgrade of its air surveillance system.


The improvements to the system at the Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center in
Riverside, Calif., will let Customs radar controllers track more aircraft and easily
differentiate between legitimate fliers and smugglers, center director Joseph W. Maxwell
said.


The system, which takes direct feeds from 60 Federal Aviation Administration and
Defense Department radar sites along the U.S. southern border, Puerto Rico and the
Caribbean, is also linked to other law enforcement databases, Maxwell said.


The system works like this: A radar controller at the Customs center notices a
suspicious flight on the surveillance screen and clicks on the plane’s icon on the
screen. The screen then displays the plane’s identification numbers, altitude,
heading and airspeed.


If the radar controller wants a closer look, he or she can highlight the symbol,
capture it and move it to the operations intelligence, or Ops-Intel, screen.


Ops-Intel can independently track the plane and display the plane’s latitude and
longitude. The controller can change the scale of the view and overlay maps depicting
terrain and other features.


The controller can then access a database of phone numbers for law enforcement agencies
in the aircraft’s flight path and coordinate pursuit efforts, providing details on
the terrain into which contraband such as illegal drugs are dropped and directions to the
airfield where the aircraft lands.


The upgraded system will let the center’s 45 radar controllers monitor 12,000
images of aircraft simultaneously, four times as many as the old system, Maxwell said.


“As fast as it was in its day, the original technology is too slow and too
inflexible by today’s standards,” he said.


The system’s software was written as an object-oriented application using C++,
said Larry Danforth, project manager for Decision-Science Applications of Colorado
Springs, Colo., which helped Customs upgrade its program.


The radar images from the ground stations reach the Customs center server from land,
satellite and microwave links. Initially, the radar data is gathered on a Silicon Graphics
Inc. server.


The system’s server, an 18 CPU 195-MHz PowerChallenge XL with 3G of RAM, runs Irix
Version 6.3. The controllers use 195-MHz Indigo2 Solid Impact workstations on a Fiber
Distributed Data Interface ring linked to a


10Base-T network, Danforth said.


Customs finished a system prototype, which cost $5.1 million, in the summer of 1996,
Danforth said.


During the $4.9 million second phase, DSA developers hooked the system to 19 live radar
feeds at the center so they could view the same information as Customs radar controllers.
The developers worked out the systems bugs


and released Version 1.0 in May of last year.


After installing incremental builds of the software at a cost of $3.1 million, DSA
released Version 2.0 in February. The fourth and fifth builds, scheduled for delivery in
August and December at a price of $3.2 million, will provide all the program’s
required tools, Danforth said.


Customs officials have already used the system to pursue an aircraft in southwest Texas
last month. Officers found 500 pounds of marijuana in the plane’s wreckage after it
crashed in a baseball field outside Detroit, said Bill McGrath, Customs national programs
manager for command, control, communications and intelligence.


The system lets radar controllers compare processed and raw data returns, correlate the
field data with law enforcement intelligence data and enter information into a log for use
in criminal prosecutions.


Because changing screens in the old system took time, Customs controllers often lost
sight of a plane’s radar image, Maxwell said. The new system’s more powerful
processors let a user switch screens quickly, so the radar images stay in view
continuously.


The system also lets Customs handle more radar feeds, Customs’ McGrath said.


“The center’s radar controllers love the new system,” he said. “The
system is versatile because it combines air defense and air traffic control capabilities
with data unique to law enforcement.”  

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