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Border Patrol Goes High Tech

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TUCSON, Ariz., Aug. 24, 2009 – An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the US today entered by crossing the US-Mexico border – the close-to-2000-mile stretch of land that extends from California into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Coupled with drug trafficking, illegal immigration has been a serious problem for decades. In an attempt to reduce unlawful access, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency in 2006 began implementing the secure Border Initiative (SBInet), a high-tech, multibillion-dollar protection plan to guard the US’ borders with Mexico and Canada.

An SBInet tower. (Photo: Boeing)

This year, DHS has accelerated plans to build a “virtual fence” on the US-Mexico border that will incorporate steel towers equipped with infrared sensors, remotely operated cameras, communications devices and radar. The system is designed to aid border patrol agents in identifying and intercepting 70 to 85 percent of all illegal passages into the US, increasing control over an immense and rugged terrain.

“US Customs and Border Protection’s approach to securing the border relies on an appropriate and effective balance of personnel, technology and tactical infrastructure, which includes border fencing, roads and lighting,” said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the initiative. “The integrated SBInet technology allows CBP agents and officers to efficiently detect, identify, classify, track and resolve illegal incursions,” he added.

The US-Mexico border. The US is on the left. (Border Patrol photo by Gerald L. Nino)

Permanent tower structures standing a few hundred feet apart will be equipped with a Flir Systems Inc. HRC medium-wavelength infrared camera, an Hitachi visible-wavelength electro-optical camera, an advanced radar surveillance system and a laser rangefinder mounted on a high-speed pan/tilt unit. Placed around the towers will be receivers for unattended ground sensors and a microwave system that transmits data back to a command center.

The sophisticated system also will offer enhanced target recognition during day, night and limited-visibility operations, while advanced zoom capabilities will allow detection from hundreds of feet to more than a mile away, Borkowski said.

DHS and its chief contractor, Boeing, are in the beginning stages of modeling the security system along 53 miles of the Arizona border. According to DHS, the fenced area, called block 1, will consist of two sections: Tucson-1, which will cover 23 miles of the border, and Ajo-1, which will cover the other 30 miles.

High-tech mobile equipment is used to observe illegal immigrants attempting to cross into the US, providing Border Patrol agents with an advantage in apprehending violators. (Border Patrol photo by James Tourtellotte)

Once the government approves the setup, the remaining 320 miles also will be equipped with the technology, followed by New Mexico, California and most of Texas – excluding approximately 200 miles that runs along the extremely rugged Big Bend National Park. It is intended that the entire US-Mexico border will be outfitted with the system by 2014.

Over the course of the initiative, Boeing has received $600 million for technology, and as of a year ago, had received an additional $260 million for construction. Total expenditures for the virtual fence are estimated to reach $6.7 billion by 2014.

When virtual fencing made its debut in 2006, a 28-mile, $20-million surveillance prototype was erected along the southern Arizona border just below Tucson. However, the project failed because of poor equipment and improperly tested technology, overly sensitive radar systems, slow satellite communications equipment and deficient camera technology.

A fence runs along sand dunes in the Yuma sector of California, part of the Southwest Border fence construction. (Border Patrol photo)

Many have questioned whether DHS is wise to continue with a venture that has proved unsuccessful to date. However, Borkowski believes that DHS and Boeing have learned from the experience and have corrected the problems by using microwave systems instead of satellites, so the system is faster, with transmissions delayed only a few seconds.

The microwave systems, along with more compatible cameras and the technology’s chief component, called a common operating picture (COP), have made the surveillance system easier for border patrollers to use.

“The COP is designed to give border patrol agents increased situational awareness by integrating surveillance results into a single display of detected activity,” Borkowski said. Activity monitored by the system’s technology is sent through the COP to a border patrol building, where it is examined by specialized COP operators. If illegal incursions are in progress, border patrol agents are notified promptly, so they can respond to the situation quickly.

Amanda D. Francoeur
Aug 2009
An electromagnetic wave lying within the region of the frequency spectrum that is between about 1000 MHz (1 GHz) and 100,000 MHz (100 GHz). This is equivalent to the wavelength spectrum that is between one millimeter and one meter, and is also referred to as the infrared and short wave spectrum.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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