Plans for “The Wall” at the U.S./Mexico border appear to be driving forward. Recent reports indicate that building the border protection wall could cost upwards of $22 Billion. However, news coverage suggests that there is a more cost-effective solution in using drones to create a ‘virtual wall.’ Time will tell whether the current administration will consider replacing all or parts of the physical wall with modern drone technology to intelligently monitor rural and desolate parts of the border. In fact, some are reporting that it’s a possibility. On the other hand, several companies have already been selected to build prototypes of the border wall. Perhaps the final solution will be some combination of both, as The Department of Homeland is actively seeking border monitoring solutions in drones for Border Patrol.
Drones at the Border
In 2014, it was reported that Predator drones were patrolling nearly half the U.S./Mexico border. These drones were used to monitor rural areas for illegal immigrants, human traffickers and drug cartels – covering parts of the border where there are no US Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents, camera towers, ground sensors or fences. The Predator drones used for these purposes were designed for the battlefield, and unfortunately a report from December 2014 found that they did not achieve the intended results.
Today, The Department of Homeland Security is looking to use smaller drones with facial recognition as part of its Silicon Valley Innovation Program – a program created to, “cultivate relationships with technology innovators, particularly non-traditional performers, from small start-ups to large companies, investors, incubators, and accelerators.” A contractor solicitation notice that was issued last summer (and closed on April 27, 2017) by DHS requested specific requirements for these border patrol drones. According to NBC News, the Department of Homeland Security was “flooded with bids” for these smaller drones.
Here’s a small sampling of what the solicitation was requesting (see the full solicitation for the detailed list of requirements):
- Functional across a variety of weather conditions and times of day
- Ability to detect the following items of interest within required detection range: humans traveling on foot (alone and in groups), humans traveling on animals (e.g., horseback), and moving ground conveyances (e.g., All Terrain Vehicles, motorcycles, automobiles, and trucks
- Easy to navigate and operate
- Sophisticated sensors, with advanced capabilities – such as infrared and facial recognition capabilities
- sUAS capabilities (sUAS typically applies to smaller consumer-grade drones under 55 pounds)
- Hypothetical natural language voice command system
While the request includes a broad range of desired capabilities, an article in The Verge suggested that, “the greatest challenge facing contractors is how to stream data from the devices, since much of the border lacks conventional cellular service.”
Connecting Where Cellular Can’t
From a technology standpoint, consumer-grade drones for border patrol are going to need secure, reliable and rugged command-and-control (C2) links. There are a number of secure wireless data communications solutions available that enable reliable C2 links. These solutions have been trusted by the government and defense industry for years, offering secure, reliable links with more than 60 miles Line of Site (LOS). There are C2 solutions providers that have operated in unmanned systems for millions of flight hours in some of the harshest weather conditions without a single broken communication link.
Drone manufacturers also should consider these types of C2 solutions because they offer secure wireless data communication by leveraging data encryption capabilities that adhere to FIPS and AES standards. Some non-cellular solutions are also proven to be reliable and secure in nature which further boosts the overall data security scheme. Frequency-hopping techniques, for example, leverage coordinated, rapid changes in radio frequencies that “hop” in the radio spectrum, evading detection and the potential of interference. Some wireless products also deliver multiple user-defined cryptography keys (as many as 32 user-defined keys in some cases), providing a more robust link security by allowing the automatic and frequent changing of cryptographic keys.
As drones are deployed more frequently for mission critical operations at our borders, it will be imperative to leverage secure C2 links that can support modern data needs in real-time while keeping the links secure. With the comfort of these powerful C2 links, Border Patrol agents can effectively monitor, assess and act upon threats in the most efficient manner possible.