The Department of Homeland Security is employing a new device that can peer through vehicles used in cross-border smuggling.
The “backscatter van” is deployed at about 30 checkpoints on the U.S.-Mexican border to snag drug and weapons runners and human traffickers.
Drivers who arouse suspicion are asked to pull over so Customs and Border Protection agents can search their vehicles. That is where the backscatter van comes in, said Patrick Simmons, director of non-intrusive inspection technology and radiation detection at CBP.
A van with a high-power x-ray machine mounted on top cruises slowly by the suspect’s parked vehicle and takes a black-and-white image, which appears on a console in the van’s cab, said Joe Reiss, vice president of marketing for the device’s designer, American Science and Engineering.
“Imagine you have the ability to peel away the side of a vehicle. That’s what this technology does.”
Reiss said the technology detects “low density” compounds such as drugs and humans — which are mostly made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and easier for an x-ray to pick up — as opposed to “high density” compounds such as steel.
Weapons — which are sometimes made of dense metals — may be more difficult to detect, although the machine can be configured to spot them, Reiss said.
The technology can also be adjusted to detect a “dirty bomb” — an explosive packed with radioactive materials — although that option would cost more to implement, Reiss said.
The device comes with a hefty price tag of $665,000 per unit and $40,000 per year for maintenance. This raises cost-benefit questions. Simmons said the device has been “extremely successful” in thwarting smugglers. “We feel the cost benefit warrants the continued utilization of the backscatter technology,” he said.
Still, with only 30 such devices deployed, it may be difficult to make a dent in cross-border illegal trafficking. Simmons said, “That’s not our only piece of equipment.” He cited more than 200 anti-smuggling systems devices throughout the border.