6 ways a 'smart wall' could solve the border security problem
- By John Dames
- Feb 26, 2019
As the national conversation around a border wall intensifies, the limitations of a physical barrier have become clear. A brick and mortar wall between the United States and Mexico presents a variety of logistical, environmental and operational challenges, many of which could be circumvented through the implementation of digital border security technology -- aka a “smart wall.”
Using internet-of-things technologies like in-ground sensors, security cameras and software solutions, a smart wall could empower border officials with enhanced situational awareness to prevent illicit activity.
These are the primary advantages offered by a smart wall solution:
1. The price tag
For a physical wall to be effective, it would need to be massive in scale. A wall the size the Trump administration has proposed would cost at least $10 to $20 billion, and could run up to $70 billion.
A smart wall, however, could accomplish the same goals with a much smaller price tag. Leading technology entrepreneurs have calculated that the cost of a smart wall would be $500,000 per mile, significantly less than the $24.5 million per mile the physical wall is expected to cost. Plus, tools like motion detectors and infrared cameras enable border security operations to rapidly adjust their tactics and respond to threats in real time.
2. Speed of deployment
Although some have claimed that the border wall could be completed in just two years, others predict that it will take much longer. One expert estimates that it could take up to 11 years and 10,000 workers to build 1,000 miles of steel barrier. In addition, hiring and training the requisite number of workers could put a substantial strain on logistics.
On the other hand, smart border technology is ready to go today. According to Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) whose Texas district includes more than 800 miles of the southern border, a smart wall is “a cost-effective way to actually come up with a plan for the entire border, and do it for a reasonable amount of money that can be funded in a year.”
3. Maintenance costs
In addition the billions of dollars it would cost to build a wall, a physical barrier would require expensive upkeep to remain effective. This is evident based on the state of existing border fencing, hundreds of miles of which are in need of repair due to damage from weather conditions and criminals who have cut through or tunneled under the barrier. In fact, Politico estimates that the cost of maintenance for a physical wall could be up to $750 million per year.
Unlike a physical barrier, a smart wall would allow border security officials to continuously adjust tactics to changing conditions. Ground sensors and IoT devices are quick and easy to deploy and inexpensive to move and update. They require only a fraction of the costs to maintain, and can be implemented gradually and as needed.
4. Environmental concerns
“Whatever they build, it’s going to be destructive to natural habitat,” says Bob Dreher, an attorney who leads the Defenders of Wildlife conservation programs. “It’s about the physical reality of what a permanent barrier will do in one of the most sensitive landscapes in North America,” he told National Geographic.
A border wall would divide the environment or migratory paths of over 1,500 native plants and animals, including 62 critically endangered species. In addition to disrupting seasonal migration, a physical barrier threatens to damage the terrain itself. In areas where border fencing already exists, the barriers have exacerbated flooding by acting as dams during flash floods.
A smart wall raises minimal environmental concerns, allowing wildlife and rainwater to pass freely through the area. Most smart devices can tell the difference between people and animals, alerting officers when a human attempts to cross the border illegally while leaving wildlife alone.
5. Limitations of terrain
The nearly 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border runs through mountains, rivers and natural reserves, making the erection of a physical border a daunting engineering challenge. Rough terrain is also difficult to patrol, which could leave portions of the wall vulnerable to breaches.
Digital technology, however, allows for enhanced surveillance across vast terrain. Devices like cameras and in-ground sensors allow patrolmen to survey hundreds of miles at once, and take informed action should the need arise. Real-time alerts make it easy to respond to activity from immigrants approaching the border or to a lost hiker looking for supplies.
6. Land ownership
To construct a border wall, the federal government would need to seize property from local landowners. Currently, just one third of the land in question is owned by the federal government, while the rest belongs to states, individual property owners and Native American tribes. In Texas’ Hidalgo County alone, 167 land seizure notices had been sent to local landowners as of June 2018.
These land seizures are extremely contentious and subject to legal challenges, but their impact could be minimized through the use of situational-awareness technology. Small and relatively non-invasive, smart wall technologies would require far fewer land seizures. The impact on US landowners and natural reserves would pale in comparison to those required for a physical barrier.
The smart wall advantage
Reimagining border security is a complex challenge -- one that many argue cannot be fully addressed with a physical barrier. A smart wall, however, presents a 21st-century solution to reducing illicit border crossings without an exorbitant price tag or disruption to those that live along the border.
Unlike steel or concrete, a smart wall leverages the power of data to generate actionable insights. When cutting-edge tech is combined with a connected data platform, border security can build a common operating picture that allows officers to survey vast territory and respond to threats in real time. A smart border wall, therefore, provides a nuanced solution to the border control problem, one that can evolve with the changing physical and political landscape.
John Dames is the chief technology officer at Coolfire Solutions.