As President Trump maps out plans for a border wall with Mexico, Customs and Border Protection is looking at a more mobile way to monitor the border: consumer drones. The agency is currently soliciting proposals for small unmanned aerial systems, similar to consumer drones manufactured by DJI and Parrot, to be deployed by US Border Patrol agents in the field.
First described in a contractor solicitation notice last summer, the proposed aircraft would be small enough to be carried in a truck and simple enough to be deployed by a single border agent in less than five minutes. The crafts would also be outfitted with sophisticated sensors, which may include infrared cameras and facial-recognition capabilities. The solicitation specifically asks for “sUAS,” a term typically used for consumer-grade drones under 55 pounds, and a significant contrast from the Predator B drones that have patrolled the border in the past.
One technical document included with the solicitation imagined a drone that could “distinguish between natural and artificial features, and between animals, humans, and vehicles at long range.” The drone would also include “facial recognition capabilities that allow it cross-reference any persons identified with relevant law enforcement databases.” The scenario meant as a hypothetical, illustrating the type of capability CBP is looking for rather than indicating a specific requirement. Still, those facial-recognition capabilities would work well with Homeland Security’s IDENT database, which currently contains more than 170 million fingerprints and facial images collected from non-citizens as they enter the United States. The FBI’s facial-recognition checks reach even further, scanning across 411 million photos in state and federal databases.
CBP officials said that kind of in-the-field identification could be immensely valuable to agents in the future, particularly crossed referenced with criminal records. “When a Border Patrol agent is out in the field, they may be very far from backup, they may not have great comms coverage,” said Ari Schuler, co-lead of CBP’s Silicon Valley office, which is managing the project. “If they encounter an armed group of human traffickers, for instance, they need to know whether those traffickers have a criminal record or are known to have assaulted an officer.”
The interface of the drones may also differ significantly from consumer drones. The solicitation expressed interest in Siri-style voice commands, since border agents may be carrying heavy equipment or need to maintain freedom of movement while operating the drone. Officials also expressed interest in multi-spectral sensors that could detect distress in plants, sometimes a result of off-road border crossings or drug meetings.
The greatest challenge facing contractors is how to stream data from the devices, since much of the border lacks conventional cellular service. Consumer drones typically broadcast video through Wi-Fi-connected hubs like a laptop or phone, but without cell service, a traditional hot spot would be unable to function. Maintaining a connection to the broader network could be crucial if agents need to share video documentation of an event with the rest of the patrol.
The solicitation has already drawn significant interest from companies. Last week, the CBP announced it was moving up the submission deadline due to a flood of interest: companies will now have until April 27th to submit proposals for the project. Three companies have already received Phase One awards for prototyping, with projects for drone-mounted millimeter wave scanning and lightweight radar systems announced in December. Customs officials say there are more awards in the pipeline.
According to one contractor, CBP’s focus has been on devices that can document an incident and alert other agents without being vulnerable to hacking or signal interception. “Anybody that can do all those things in a short period of time is going to get the money,” said Derek Lyons, a technology scout at Beyond the Drone who has talked with Customs on behalf of BirdsEyeView Aerobotics. “The big question is, how quickly can they get something? Small companies can have a hard time estimating how far along they are.”
The solicitation is part of a larger initiative within the Department of Homeland Security that looks to drum up new agency tools through venture capital tactics. Launched in 2014, DHS’s Silicon Valley office was designed to get new technology into government hands faster by operating as a venture capital firm, following the lead of the CIA’s controversial In-Q-Tel investment arm. Modeled after a Series B funding round, that process requires companies to submit formal proposals, then undergo a venture capital-style pitch round with executives from DHS’s Silicon Valley office. If the prototype meets agency needs, DHS will invest as much as $200,000 to help put it into production, with a final product to be provided within two years of the first award. The agency has already invested in a string of cybersecurity companies, as well as enhancements to the Global Travel Assessments system. CBP is also soliciting ideas for a new kind of videoconferencing system and health-tracking units to monitor dogs in the agency’s canine program.
CBP’s move to smaller drones comes after the agency’s struggles with Predator drones, which have proven both more expensive and less effective than anticipated. An Inspector General report in 2014 found that the program had spent at least $62.5 million to operate its fleet of 10 drones over the course of a year. Despite early hopes, the program failed to lower the cost of border surveillance or lead to a significant increase in apprehensions. The drones were also the target of significant spoofing and GPS jamming efforts.
The personal drone project is particularly relevant as Customs and Border Patrol moves toward the construction of a physical wall at the Mexican border. In a congressional hearing yesterday, Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said the wall is unlikely to cover every portion of the border, and would need to be supplemented with surveillance equipment and other technology.
CBP officials say technological support will be crucial even in areas where a physical wall is built. “Even where you see physical barriers or infrastructure today, it’s in conjunction with agents and surveillance technology,” said CBP assistant chief Chris Pietrzak. “There are alternative mechanisms by which we can establish surveillance, and sUAS is one of them.”
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