WASHINGTON — Whether unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have a more significant role to play in U.S. border security remains to be seen, but a recent contract award indicates that they will not be aggressively implemented in the near future.
Boeing Co. of Chicago was awarded a contract from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Sept. 21 to develop the technology component of its Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a program that is designed to monitor U.S. borders outside the points of entry where immigrants can legally enter the country.
The initial phase of the contract is valued $67 million, according to Department of Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen. The potential total value of the contract hasn’t been determined but has been estimated at around $2 billion.
Rather than heavily relying on UAVs for its monitoring capabilities, the Boeing proposal uses a combination of radars and electrical-optical cameras to keep tabs on the borders, with the technology mounted on around 1,800 towers placed at strategic locations, Wayne Esser, Director of Advanced Systems & Securities for Boeing, said in a Sept. 29 phone interview.
With Boeing’s system, once the radar identifies something suspicious, cameras can zoom in on the area and get high-resolution imagery of the situation, he said.
“If it’s a non-threat, then we can just move on,” Esser said. “If it’s illegal crossers, we can log them in and track them.”
Bids from competing players such as Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman had submitted proposals that relied much more heavily on UAVs. The Boeing team uses UAVs in their plan, but on a much smaller scale.
“We’re not going to darken the sky with big UAVs,” Esser said, noting that his team is proposing the use of a smaller class of UAVs that do not require a runway for launch. An individual could transport the UAV in his or her truck and use it for specific functions, such as flying into a ravine that isn’t visible to someone on foot, Esser added.
The decision to rely less on UAVs was a matter of doing the cost/benefit analysis, Esser said. The cost of the Boeing system, he said, doesn’t “even come close” to the cost of a more sophisticated, UAV-driv en approach, which would achieve what they consider to be the same level of detection.
“Part of the problem is the operational cost of UAVs today, and a need [for them to] get better at autonomous flying,” Esser said. “This application just doesn’t warrant that kind of expense when you can do it more cheaply.”
Northrop Grumman begs to differ. Bruce Walker, vice president for strategic planning for homeland security for Northrop Grumman, said he still believes that a more layered surveillance system, which can be achieved through greater use of UAVs, is what is needed to patrol the border.
“That’s one thing that [the Department of Homeland Security] needs to recognize more thoroughly,” Walker said.
The problem with using UAVs with less frequency, according to Walker, is that you have a fixed rather than a mobile monitoring system, and perpetrators can potentially avoid detection because of that.
The Northrop Grumman plan had proposed using Global Hawk UAVs in order to patrol constantly across large swaths of land, while deploying smaller tactical UAVs when there is an indication of a threat, Walker said. UAVs could also play a role in extending the border patrol’s communications network , he added.
Jim Lewis, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that despite the SBI award, the use of UAVs, as well as satellite technology for border patrolling purposes should continue to grow.
“I think it was a management thing,” Lewis said, explaining that there were issues in terms of managing airspace so that UAVs would not overcrowd the atmosphere. Lewis expects that the use of smaller UAVs for now will be more prevalent than large-scale vehicles.
The Boeing plan incorporates satellite technology in its solution as well, but mostly on a supplemental basis. Very Small Aperture Terminal systems are used to some extent for communications purposes, and several-thousand satellite phones and data modems from Bethesda, Md.-basedwill be used to provide back-up communications for officers that travel out of the reach of radio frequencies, Esser said.
Northrop Grumman recently had its own big win in the border security arena, namely a pilot program to provide security to land ports of entry across the border, valued at $33.7 million over five years.
Though the program uses communications relays and overhead satellite imagery on a smaller scale, it is not wholly dependent on satellite technology and does not incorporate UAVs.
Despite the SBI loss, Walker believes that the Department of Homeland Security will eventually come back to using UAVs for other border security projects, particularly given the success of some pilot projects that have incorporated UAVs for this purpose.
“I don’t believe that it’s off the table,” Walker said.
For future border security endeavors, Walker expects to see UAVs equipped with new radar technology capable of detecting movements slower than four kilometers per hour.
Equipped with such technology, UAVs would be able to detect when an individual has dismounted from a vehicle and is approaching the border by foot. Walker said that technology is currently being considered for use on a Global Hawk platform.
Esser, on the other hand, sees the technology trends moving away from UAVs and more towards new sensors and other technologies.
Some trends he expects to see include an increased reliance on biometric sensors, and such gadgets as hand-held devices that can immediately take fingerprints and transfer them into a data system to check previous criminal records, as well as facial recognition technology.