With SBInet In Limbo, Border Technology Is Anyone’s Game (UPDATED)

By Eric Beidel
TUCSON, Ariz. — Authorities have closed public recreation areas here and peppered the harsh desert landscape with foreboding messages about threats rising from the Mexican border.

“DANGER — PUBLIC TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED. Active Drug and Human Smuggling Area,” reads one sign at a destination popular for its towering saguaro cacti, Indian relics and wildlife. “Visitors May Encounter Armed Criminals and Smuggling Vehicles Traveling At High Rates. Stay Away From Cash, Clothing, Backpacks and Abandoned Vehicles. If You See Suspicious Activity, Do Not Confront!”

Against this backdrop of fear, local entrepreneurs envision another kind of sign: “Open for Business.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s program to deploy a network of cutting-edge cameras, sensors and communication technologies along the southwest border has hit its share of snags and more recently a wall. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this year ordered a review of the Secure Border Initiative’s technology efforts, dubbed SBInet, and diverted money away from the program. The secretary put a moratorium on new work under the initiative.

This uncertainty leaves the door open for other attempts to bring technology to the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada.

In the north and the south, partnerships are forming between universities and small businesses in the name of security and profits. The players want secure borders, but they also want DHS to spend more money in their regions.

Mike Crosby recently relocated his surveillance and communications firm from the nation’s capital to Tucson and joined a group of university and industry executives trying to solve the border crisis brewing a little more than an hour’s drive south.

“It’s the sector where DHS is spending most of the money,” Crosby said. “We want to be right here in the heart of it. As they say, ‘follow the money.’”

Crosby’s company Aria International has become a partner in the Border Security and Technology Commercialization Center. The BSTCC makes its headquarters at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park, a sprawling 2 million square feet of offices and laboratories on more than 1,300 acres just outside Tucson’s city limits. The center exists mostly on paper right now, but the plan is to give an economic shot in the arm to border communities by providing local companies a way to test and deploy technology on the U.S.-Mexico line. The ultimate goal is to create a series of testing facilities and research parks along the border between Tucson and Santa Teresa, N.M., where the university has a partner in the Bi-National Sustainability Laboratory, a nonprofit organization that could bring in collaborators from Mexico.

“There’s a lot of technology out there that might address border issues,” said Bruce Wright, associate vice president for research parks at the University of Arizona. “But it’s not adequately tested and evaluated and integrated into the processes and the circumstances of border-crossing locations.”

The center is seeking $3 billion from DHS for a five-year pilot project that would result in the testing of two yet-to-be-identified technologies, one in Tucson and one in New Mexico. A DHS spokesperson would not comment on the initiative.

The center could help DHS and other agencies find solutions and evaluate those already in existence in real-life settings and situations, Wright said. The effort mirrors a previous partnership between the university and the Food and Drug Administration aimed at bringing drugs to the marketplace in safer, faster and cheaper ways. This one, though, hits closer to home.

“If we’re going to be in bed with the border on a day-to-day basis with all of its problems and issues and there’s a solution to it, why shouldn’t we be the place where that issue is solved and we get the commercial benefit from it?” Wright said. “We have a cluster of companies emerging here in Tucson that are developing these technologies and we want to grab those companies, keep them here, manufacture their products, distribute them and bring economic value and wealth to the citizens of our region.”

Businesses are thinking the same thing in Michigan, where DHS officials recently attended a conference devoted to northern border security.

The nonprofit Michigan Security Network wants to create a site in or near Detroit to field-test new products under consideration by DHS. Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and smaller schools are founding members of the security network, which includes more than a dozen companies.

Michigan’s cold climate and high-traffic border crossings would be the ideal environment to test new surveillance assets, sensors and tactical infrastructure, the network’s CEO Leslie Touma said at the conference. Local companies could provide solutions to detect intruders, hazardous materials and underwater tunnels and pipes, she said during her presentation, which is available on her organization’s website. Despite sharing a border with Canada, Michigan receives less DHS funding than 30 other states, according to FedSpending.org. Virginia, Washington, D.C., and California have received the biggest contracts.

The money has been flowing to Arizona, home to the least secure section of the southwest border. Half of all illegal entries into the United States occur across the 260 miles of border in the Tucson sector, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said during a speech at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

SBInet has focused its attention on Arizona. Prime contractor Boeing in 2009 deployed 15 sensor towers, 13 communications towers and 400 unattended ground sensors along 54 linear miles of the Arizona-Mexico border in the areas of Ajo and Tucson. It had begun laying the groundwork to install additional equipment along 120 mores miles when Napolitano halted work. The secretary’s review of the program was nearing completion in late October, a DHS spokesperson said.

SBInet followed two previous programs abolished because of equipment failures and mismanagement. The Government Accountability Office conducted an audit between November 2009 and June 2010 and found some of the same problems with SBInet.

“Among other things, our reports and recommendations point to an SBInet technology program in a constant state of flux, with delays in deployment that require the Border Patrol to continue relying on existing technology for securing the border and weaknesses in testing and acquisition that have resulted in a program that has not produced expected results,” reads a July 30 GAO report.

Boeing has worked with CBP to overcome past performance and management challenges, company spokesperson Jenna McMullin told National Defense. “We have held to a schedule baseline over the past nine months that has resulted in capabilities that are in the hands of Border Patrol agents right now, providing them greater safety, situational awareness and resource effectiveness than ever before,” she said.

In addition to this so-called “virtual fence,” there already stands a few hundred miles of actual fencing along the southern U.S. border with plans to add more. If a physical barrier has to be built, those involved in the Tucson initiative would like to see it placed a few miles inside the actual border.

“We don’t like to put fences right on the border,” said Crosby, whose company a few years ago installed double fencing, thermal cameras, radars and remotely operated M-16 rifles on poles around Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. “You can put them back from the border a little ways and put other things out there to give you some warning and indicators. By the time they climb over the fence, it’s too late.”

Crosby suggests placing systems of smart cameras and sensors at the border and installing the fence about five miles in from that. He already has devices that the BSTCC could test — container and vehicle scanners that will become vastly more critical in a couple of years. Legislation slated to go into effect July 2012 calls for all containers to be scanned or screened before coming into the United States. While DHS has the authority to delay the start of this law, it does not have a standard for what scanners are to be used, Crosby said.

About 1,700 trucks each day roll through the Mariposa Port of Entry about 71 miles south of Tucson in Nogales. The entry point is Arizona’s largest for commercial traffic, but it is not the most secure, Wright said. During a recent visit, people on foot waved to him while crossing over from Mexico, he said.

“Part of what we’re suggesting to DHS is not only do you need to identify technology but you need to figure out how to integrate it into the overall process,” Wright said. “Let’s say you need to X-ray railroad cars going through the city of Nogales. How do you take that X-ray technology and integrate it into the overall inspection process and make it work?”

The university’s tech park has a partner in Alion Science and Technology, a company that specializes in systems integration and could help solve that problem, Wright explained. Other local outfits have signed on to the effort based on capabilities they could provide to border security operations.

Darling Environmental and Surveying uses terrestrial light detection and ranging to create 3D maps of buildings and underground passageways. The firm has worked with NASA, Raytheon and San Francisco and Dulles International airports. The company has scanned a tunnel under the border and possesses the tools to find other underground passages.

“There is a considerable concern that there are so many tunnels being formed underneath Nogales that the ground is actually subsiding,” said Vaughn Cantor, marketing director for Darling. “This is something we can measure from a half-mile away.”

DILAS, a company that manufactures diode lasers, has looked into powering unmanned aerial vehicles with high-energy lasers from the ground. The company is located at the university park.

Then there’s Crosby, who has experience securing borders overseas. While on active duty with the Navy in 2002, he led counterproliferation efforts for U.S. Central Command in Iraq. He oversaw about 160 special operatives who were to keep an eye out for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons moving across the borders of 27 countries. Shortly after this assignment, Crosby formed Aria International and began integrating drones, airships and helicopters into surveillance operations.

Aria won a $3 billion contract to install 22 high-end crossings between India and Pakistan. It also is currently under contract with the Royal Thai Army to monitor a growing insurgency in southern Thailand. The efforts there include using a Skyship 600 blimp to watch over events on the ground. Crosby said he has been talking to CBP officials about flying an airship along the southern U.S. boundary.

“Integration of these systems really isn’t a challenge,” Crosby said. “It’s not rocket science. Some of the big companies put so much management oversight, so much conceptual design to this thing and try to make it into a [research-and-development] program. But there is enough technology out here today that can be applied in an effective manner.”

The BSTCC has proposed building a testing facility at the tech park where a variety of entry ports and scenarios can be simulated. The compound could be made large enough to accommodate more than border-related tryouts.

“If you wanted to mock up the entry point to the green zone in Baghdad, you could do that,” Wright said. “If you wanted to put together the lane configuration at the commercial port of entry at Mariposa in Nogales, you could do that.” The initial testing at the tech park would precede run-throughs at specific locations along the border, he explained.

“We have the ability to bring a methodology and approach to this that is badly needed by DHS,” Wright said. “Too often these technologies aren’t tested in the actual context in which they need to be applied and then there’s a problem when they’re actually deployed.”

With the help of a college student, tech park personnel are working to identify every company in the Tucson region that has technology it wants to present to DHS. If no federal money is made available for the program, the companies say they will make it happen on their own.

“We’re not waiting for DHS to fund this,” Wright said. “We’re taking it from the other side, the commercial side.”

CORRECTION: Due to inaccurate information provided to National Defense, this story incorrectly reported that Aria international won a $3 billion contract to install border crossings between India and Pakistan. The company is pursuing only a portion of the contract that calls for 22 crossings between the countries. 

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security

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