PHOENIX -- Someplace else, the trio of compact aircraft hanging in mid-air might have been mistaken for shiny, remote-controlled toys. Not at the Border Security Expo, where the tiny drones outfitted with cameras were part of an arsenal of technology aimed at keeping America safe.
For two days this week, the 30,000-square foot exhibit hall at the Phoenix Convention Center was a smorgasbord of those unmanned aerial vehicles, high-tech sensors, surveillance cameras, wireless technologies, cutting-edge security systems, military-style body armor, high-powered rifles and large and small-wheeled vehicles. The Pointman Tactical Robot, a remote-controlled gizmo that climbs stairs and can be mounted with a weapon, turned many heads as it rolled around the floor.
The smallest of the three hanging aircraft, known as the Qube, is the latest high-tech eye in the sky promoted by AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, Calif. "This could be assembled and launched out of the back of a vehicle to provide surveillance within five minutes in an emergency situation," said marketing manager David Heidel.
As federal, state and local law enforcement officials gathered in sessions to discuss the successes and challenges of protecting the nation's borders, vendors from 183 companies – 50 more than last year, according to Kelvin Marsden-Kish of show producer Eagle Eye Expositions – hawked their border-control products in the exhibition hall.
For the past seven years, the expo has been a premier showcase for state-of-the art technology once reserved largely for the military. But 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror ushered in unprecedented boosts in Border Patrol technology, along with manpower, particularly along the Southwest border. The border buildup in Arizona, a popular gateway for drug- and people-smuggling, has been intense.
Under the Department of Homeland Security since 2003, the Border Patrol doubled its size to more than 21,000 agents and relied on technology like never before. Predator drones now patrol the southern skies. Ground sensors alert Border Patrol agents to illegal activity. Robots work to detect drug tunnels. “A lot of the things that in the past were not feasible, all of a sudden are feasible and are being used,” Joseph Battaglia, president and CEO of Telephonics Corporation, told The Fiscal Times about the advanced technology in his company’s Mobile Surveillance Capability offering.
Producing technology for border control is now a booming business, and the push for sweeping immigration reform may provide a further boost. The homeland security market in the United States is expected to reach $31 billion by next year, up from $25 billion in 2010, and the Department of Homeland Security dominates nearly 60 percent of it, according to a report by Washington, D.C.-based research and consulting firm Homeland Security Market Research.
Since winning reelection, President Obama has pushed for an overhaul of immigration policies. The president has proposed tightening border security as part of a package of reforms that also seek to create a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Those demands for increased border security as a linchpin for immigration reform bodes well for the industry even with the specter of sequester cuts to the Department of Homeland Security. (Officials such as Michael Fisher, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, and John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who had been scheduled to appear at the conference, canceled their trips as a result of the cutbacks.)
Department officials who did make it to the expo seemed open to embracing new technology that helps border authorities be more efficient. Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the Office of Technology, Innovations and Acquisitions with Customs and Border Protection, said that even with the budget crunch he still counts on support from his superiors and Congress to be able to use reserve funding for "emergent requirements, like phones, and new and innovative technology." For example, he said, the agency still lacks reliable technology to detect low-flying aircraft and tunnels used to smuggle drugs over and under the border.
Border Patrol Agent Kevin Hecht, a tunnel specialist in Nogales, Ariz., said 162 tunnels, both crude and sophisticated, have been found along the 2,000-mile border since 1990, most of them in the border town 180 miles south of Phoenix. Hecht and others have used robots and other technology to locate tunnels, with hit-and-miss results.
Borkowski also noted in a panel discussion that border agents still struggle with the agency's communications infrastructure but that replacing mobile radios and closing gaps would have cost a prohibitive $1.5 billion. The agency is looking for options.
The explosion of drones and other surveillance technologies has raised concerns about privacy and the potential for misuse by private individuals and businesses. About two-thirds of the U.S. population is subject to surveillance by drones operated by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “The records obtained by EPIC raise questions about the agency's compliance with federal privacy laws and the scope of domestic surveillance,” the group said recently. In an effort to regulate the use of drones, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) last month introduced a bill called the Preserving American Privacy Act. "The expanded use of drones on U.S. soil raises serious Constitutional and civil liberties issues that Congress needs to address," Lofgren said in a statement at the time.
Back in the exhibition hall, Heidel of AeroVironment was optimistic about the future of his industry. He hopes innovations like the Qube, the quadcopter drone that can stay aloft up to 40 minutes, will help his company do brisk border business. The Border Patrol previously has used some of the company’s older fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, he said.
John Chigos, founder and CEO of PlateSmart, agreed that technology is crucial to achieving border security. "We can assist in that," he said. His company's recently developed software that can hook up to existing surveillance cameras on the border and check license plates against a criminal database, emiting an alert when it reads a suspicious number on an approaching vehicle.
Nearby, Bobby Brown waxed enthusiastic about the latest advanced radar surveillance system that can be mounted on a truck, tower or tripod, to track individuals as far as seven miles away.
His company, Telephonics Corp., based in Farmingdale, New York, has produced the technology for the military since 1999. In 2008, it delivered its first 44 units to the U.S. Border Patrol. Brown would only say that each is "more than $500,000 and less than $1 million." Two other units were delivered last week to the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which covers most of Arizona's stretch of border, said Brown, the company's vice president of business development. Another 15 will be delivered by mid-July. "They're investing in technology to close the border," Brown said. "Sequestration does affect many programs, but the need to secure and close our borders is an ever-present threat."