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DHS Science and Technology Directorate to Focus on Arctic Region as Ice Recedes 

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By Stew Magnuson 



With the polar ice in the Arctic receding more quickly in summer months, the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate is turning its attention to the region.

“The Arctic is increasingly becoming a domain of importance for us, especially from an S&T standpoint,” said Anh Duong, director of the directorate’s borders and maritime division.

The division is partnering with the Coast Guard’s research and development center to look at how it can support missions in the challenging north, she said at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Ariz.

The Coast Guard is responsible for search and rescue there. It is also the only federal agency charged with maintaining icebreakers.

The toughest challenge in the Arctic will be communications, she said. The directorate is looking first at “low hanging fruits,” commercial off-the-shelf technologies and other already developed systems to solve this problem, she said.

“The Arctic is, of course, the new frontier from an economic standpoint,” but there is no infrastructure in place to support it, she noted.

“There is no power grid, and satellites are expensive. … We have to stand in line like everyone else to task the satellites that are owned by DoD,” she said. National defense concerns are always a higher priority, and rightfully so, she said.

The Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue mission will require sensing capabilities as well as communications. Commercial satellites can provide both, but they are expensive. And when it comes to imagery, there are latency issues, she said.  

“When we want to see something, and the satellite takes the data and it doesn’t come back for another 20 hours, that boat is long gone by then,” she said.

Radars being used to track boats may have to be adapted for the harsh environment.

“What is being developed for along coastlines and lakes is applicable, but might not be robust enough. It might not be able to meet the special challenge of the Arctic,” she added.

The border and maritime division has other difficult challenges to tackle. The main ones are clandestine tunnels and ultralight aircraft that are used to smuggle drugs at land borders and semi-submersible boats that are used for the same purposes in the seas.

The S&T directorate focuses on mature technologies that can transition to the field rapidly, Duong noted.

“I want to find technologies that I think will have the best possibility to transition to [Customs and Border Protection]. It might be the coolest thing since sliced bread. It might be a great capability. It might be a game changer, but if I know there are other practical considerations — why that technology might not be able to get into the field in the near term — then I won’t invest in it,” she said.

Ultralight aircraft that can carry one person and several pounds of drugs are notoriously hard to detect with radar, she said.

By the time they land, or drop the cargo to someone waiting below, there isn’t much time to respond. On the northern border, agents may be hours away. It is better to do forensic analysis of where they land so agents can predict activity in advance, she said.

Similar efforts are under way to predict where a tunnel might be.

 The division is looking at ways to exploit commercial satellite data to search for submersibles and small boats.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration radars that are pointed toward the oceans to track weather can be altered with some small microchips and new algorithms to assist in the tracking of these low-signature vessels.

“The radar is staring out to the same ocean that we are staring … that is what we mean by repurposing,” she said.

“There are a lot of sensors out there. How do we build a highway to plug all these data streams together?” she asked.

Photo Credit: Coast Guard
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