Walls alone  won't seal US borders (Image: KPA/Zuma/Rex Features)

From New Scientist, 6 January 2010, by Paul Mark

A MIGRANT makes a furtive dash across an unwalled rural section of a national border, only to be confronted by a tracked robot that looks like a tiny combat tank – with a gimballed camera for an eye. As he passes the bug-eyed droid, it follows him and a border guard’s voice booms from its loudspeaker. He has illegally entered the country, he is warned, and if he does not turn back he will be filmed and followed by the robot, or by an airborne drone, until guards apprehend him.

Welcome to the European border of the not-too-distant future. Amid the ever-present angst over illegal immigration, cross-border terrorism and contraband smuggling, some nations are turning to novel border-surveillance technologies, potentially backed up by robots, a conference on state security in Leeds, UK, heard in November. The idea is to scatter arrays of sensors in a border area in ways that give guards or robots plenty of time to respond before their targets make good an escape.

The need to secure borders is evident across the globe, from India – which is constructing a 3400-kilometre, 3-metre-high barbed-wire and concrete border wall to close itself off from Bangladesh – to Libya, where foot patrols are being augmented with new people-sensing technologies.

Libya has an agreement with the European Union to try to limit the flow of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa traversing its borders before crossing the Mediterranean and entering Italy. To help it enforce this deal, Libya is spending €300 million on technology for what it calls a “large border security and control system”, made by Selex Sistemi Integrati, part of Italian aerospace firm Finmeccanica. Selex says its command, control and communication technology will include all the computers and software necessary to make sense of the data gathered by a raft of different sensors on the Libyan border. Project details remain under wraps, but Selex already makes acoustic, infrared and remote-imaging sensors, which could find uses in border control.

Elsewhere, the US Department of Homeland Security, along with Boeing Intelligence and Security Systems, is fielding sensors on the border with Mexico, in an $8 billion project called the Secure Border Initiative network.

SBInet will eventually comprise some 400 25-metre-high towers similar to cellphone masts and containing an array of remote-controlled optical and infrared cameras. The towers will also carry a primary sensor designed to detect humans. This sensor is a 10-gigahertz, or “X-band”, ground surveillance radar made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in Tel Aviv. The towers will be dotted along the US’s 3000-kilometre triple-layered border fence.

The radar will supplement acoustic and vibration sensors strewn around the border zone that pick up voices and footfalls, and will provide patrols with early warning of activity in the border area – as far as 10 kilometres from the fence. So says Mark Borkowski, who directs the SBInet project for the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency in Washington DC.

The idea is that robotic cameras will zoom in automatically on any activity detected by radar or sensors. “Then we classify the event to gauge our response: is it just a stray cow? A person? If so, are they carrying weapons or maybe drugs?” says Borkowski. “We’re not foolish enough to think a fence alone will work: we know people can build ramps and cut through it.”

A prototype SBInet system, based on nine temporary towers, has been tested on a 45-kilometre stretch of the US-Mexico border near Sasabe, Arizona, for the past three years. Called Project 28, it had problems: the X-band radar produced too much signal clutter from the ground, making it tough to detect human activity. And the satellite links it used took too long to send sensor data to base – so people had often disappeared by the time an alert was raised.

The radar has been modified and satellite links abandoned in favour of fast ground-based microwave links, says Tim Peters, Boeing’s SBInet project chief. The project moves to its deployment phase in mid-2010, when 17 permanent towers near Tucson will be turned on. Magnetic sensors will be added to detect vehicle movements and weapons, too. CBP is also trialling Predator drones on the border to feed surveillance pictures into SBInet.

IAI is a partner in the EU’s Transportable Autonomous Patrol for Land Border Surveillance (TALOS) programme, which eschews static ground sensors and border walls in favour of the aforementioned bug-eyed robots – replete with human-sensing radar – and aerial drones.

TALOS is needed because the expanded 27-nation EU has a porous eastern border that it cannot afford to monitor conventionally, says Agnieszka Spronska of the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements (PIAP), based in Warsaw, Poland. PIAP is leading the 10-nation TALOS consortium, which is spending €20 million on developing the architecture for a mobile network of ground robots, drones and the command centres from which they are run.

“TALOS will be very scalable depending on the terrain – you can use as much of it as you need without static elements,” says Spronska. More than one ground robot will approach people, she says, as groups often split up.

More than one of the ground-based robots will approach people, as groups often split up

But where does this deep-probing 24/7 surveillance technology leave residents who are living near borders, in terms of privacy? “We protect the camera and sensor systems from any kind of illegal or unauthorised use,” says Borkowski. “But it is indeed a balancing act. People are right to be asking such questions.”

Issue 2742 of New Scientist magazine