Sensors, UAVs to the rescue along borders

Sensor devices and unmanned aerial vehicles could play a pivotal role in patrolling the nation's land borders in the near future, government officials and expert witnesses said at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

U.S. borders soon might be dotted with more than 10,000 sensors, including tiny devices powered by cacti and trees and augmented by unmanned aerial vehicles, according to testimony. The new deployments are part of a concentrated effort by the Homeland Security Department to use advanced technology to stem unauthorized entries into the country.

Numerous new technologies eventually could be applied to border security to address many complex issues, Jay Cohen, DHS' undersecretary for science and technology, told the House Science Committee.

'I could go through a litany of technologies, but you are already familiar with that,' Cohen said during the hearing. 'One size doesn't fit all. We need coverage through trees, deserts and waterways.'

Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) held the hearing to examine the use of new products for securing the border.

'My sense is that we haven't done a very good job of that so far,' Boehlert said during the hearing. 'We haven't methodically thought through what technology to deploy, how to deploy it, and how to integrate it with the people who will actually be apprehending those trying to cross the border illegally.'

Cohen praised the department's upcoming Secure Border Initiative as a comprehensive approach to integrate all efforts to control the borders, including manpower, communications and surveillance. The Science and Technology Directorate is to support the border initiative by providing systems engineering tools to ensure the right devices are chosen, he said.

While Secure Border is a multiyear project, the directorate intends to test and recommend items for it on a 12- to 18-month cycle, Cohen said in his written remarks.

Some technologies to be investigated include radar, electro-optic and infrared cameras, unattended ground sensors, fiber-optic tripwires and emergent sensors, according to the written testimony.

The directorate also is working on biometric capabilities for border agents, and is exploring pattern discovery and prediction technologies for identifying preferred routes for cross-border smuggling.

However, Cohen told the committee he will have no role in selecting contractors for the border initiative, including the estimated $2 billion Secure Border Initiative Network, a comprehensive surveillance system of sensors and cameras. DHS is expected to make an award later this month.

Cohen, who was making his first appearance as DHS undersecretary before the committee, said he has reorganized the directorate around 'enduring' priorities, rather than focus on specific projects as had been done in the past. One of his priorities is to integrate border security and maritime security, he said.

'Borders and maritime are the 8,000-pound gorillas,' Cohen said. 'If we put them together, they will encircle our borders.'

One idea put forth at the hearing was to sprinkle 10,000 sensors along the land borders to create a network, including self-powered devices that are propelled by chemical reactions within plants, such as cacti and trees. One advantage would be avoiding the need to develop an electrical power infrastructure or to rely on batteries, Cohen said.

Asked whether it is possible to secure the borders, Cohen said it is, but the degree of success would be determined by political and resource decisions. 'We are very optimistic,' Cohen said.

Also at the hearing, Gregory Giddens, director of the Secure Border Initiative executive office, said he expects to complete a strategic plan for the initiative by November.

Asked by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) whether it makes sense to award the contract for the border surveillance system before the strategy is complete, and whether it will influence technology for the border, Giddens said the strategic plan is a 'continuum that goes beyond borders' and aims to be 'technology agnostic.'

In other testimony, Peter Worch, former vice commander of the Air Force's Rome Air Development Center, praised unmanned aerial vehicles for offering significant advantages in border security.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer for Government Computer News' sister publication, Washington Technology.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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