CBP Initiates Second Phase of New Surveillance System
By Stew Magnuson
Customs and Border Protection is making a second attempt at deploying a high-tech camera system south of Tucson, Ariz. that is designed to help Border Patrol agents interdict illegal migrants and drug smugglers.
“This is the real, no kidding production version of the system,” Mark Borkowski, executive director of CBP’s Secure Border Initiative, told National Defense.
The first attempt to deploy a new generation of cameras and sensors and to send streaming video into Border Patrol vehicles was Project 28. The $20 million technology demonstration program hit several technical snags and fell into disfavor on Capitol Hill. The project aimed to use radar, high-resolution cameras and other sensors to spot incursions near the remote Sasabe border crossing.
Along with problems employing the radars, it could not deliver on its promise to send images gathered from camera towers directly into Border Patrol vehicles in real time. Initial attempts to use satellites as the project’s communication backbone failed, and there were no commercial wireless systems in the remote desert area capable of carrying the data.
“We oversold it essentially. We said, ‘this is great. You’re going to love it. It’s going to be a perfect system.’ And when it didn’t work we had to do some backtracking and say ‘wait a minute. It was a prototype,’” Borkowski said.
Nevertheless, that prototype system did operate and currently provides some capability to agents. The “Block I” system will replace it, he added. The towers and sensors for the new version are in place at Sasabe and will undergo testing over the next few months.
There will be eight communications towers along the newly expanded area. They will transmit images back to Tucson Sector headquarters, where dispatchers will verbally guide agents to targets, Borkowski said.
Twenty-three miles of the Sasabe area is covered. Work is underway to install sensor and communications towers along a 30-mile stretch of the Ajo district to the west. The plan is to roll out the technology in 25- to 40-mile swaths to cover the entire state, Borkowski said. However, there is currently no funding to expand the technology beyond these two zones, he said.
The Ajo and Sasabe Block I deployments will be used “to make downstream decisions about how much more of this system we should deploy,” he added.
Pushing imagery into vehicles may be possible in the future if the program ever reaches more populated areas where wireless companies could provide a communications backbone. CBP officials have maintained the common operation picture software works. It has simply been a matter of having an affordable means to transmit the data. However, it will be up to the Border Patrol as to whether they want this capability, Borkowski said.
The Government Accountability Office criticized Project 28 managers for not seeking the input of agents in the field. Borkowski said sending streaming video into vehicles will be expensive and funding is limited. Border Patrol officials may decide that its limited budget is better spent on other capabilities.
Meanwhile in the north, CBP expects construction to begin soon on an intelligence fusion center in the Detroit sector. The operations intelligence center will be located on the Selfridge Air National Guard Base north of Detroit and will house members of the CBP, Border Patrol, Coast Guard and local agencies. There are ongoing discussions as to whether representatives from Canadian agencies will join their U.S. counterparts at the center, he said.
Construction also began this week on a series of cameras that will monitor the St. Clair River north of Detroit.