DHS eyes military blimp to stop illegal border traffic

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Homeland Security officials have expressed interest in deploying the Pentagon's excess aerostats, robotic helium balloons used for surveillance.

The Homeland Security Department is vetting surveillance blimps as possible additions to its Southwest border fleet of unmanned aircraft, DHS officials said.

To more quickly capture illegal entrants, drug smugglers and gunrunners, DHS Customs and Border Protection increasingly is embracing robotic technologies once relegated to battlefields. The automated vehicles include remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, and now "aerostat" helium balloons. Lawmakers are backing the move for taxpayers to get their money's worth out of military aircraft idled by the drawdown of overseas troops.

"CBP is always looking to integrate new technologies to better leverage border enforcement efforts, and we continue to conduct field tests for this type of technology as well as identify and test additional candidate systems," DHS spokeswoman Nicole Stickel told Nextgov.

Last month in Arizona, Homeland Security officials announced that a vendor successfully tested a 75-foot computerized blimp that was floating 2,000 feet off the ground.

During the assessment, officials did more than observe an aspiring contractor play with a remote-controlled camera on a large balloon. Some Border Patrol agents learned how to manipulate the video themselves, said John Marion, persistent surveillance division director for Logos Technologies, the maker of the aerostat's information system. The imagery collected led to more than 100 arrests for attempted illegal entry, DHS officials said, as well as, according to Marion, at least one narcotics interception.

The aerial part of the system consists of a balloon carrier, a wide-angle sensor called "Kestrel," and a close-up camera. The video captured from the sky is continuously streamed down to a viewing station where agents can watch 24-hour action on a live screen, replay archived footage on a different screen, and zoom in on suspicious activity on yet another screen.

The system can be programmed to notify agents when it senses movement. "If someone jumps across the border fence and throws a satchel of drugs," the machine will alert the computer user of the commotion, Marion said.

In November, CBP officials told House proponents of military-style border surveillance that DHS was interested in deploying the Pentagon's surplus aerostats but was vexed over how to fit the technology into the department's information technology environment.

"The difficulty comes when I bring in a DoD system that I have to plug into my command-and-control system," Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the CBP Technology Innovation and Acquisition Office, told a House subcommittee in November. For example, with aerostats, "I do have to worry about the training and the development of crews to operate them."

Marion said, for the video part of the system, "it's not a very steep learning curve to learn how to operate it and operate it effectively."

Compared to the stealth eye of a drone, aerostats probably pose less of a privacy threat, Logos officials said. The resolution of the wide-angle Kestrel only is good enough to track vehicles and, to some extent, people over a large area. "It's not intended to be covert," Marion said. "Even at night, it's not covert. It has flashing lights so that airplanes don't crash into it."

Today, only a handful of Homeland Security drones survey the Southwest region, partly due to collision concerns. The Federal Aviation Administration currently is drafting safety standards to increase the number of U.S.-based drones permitted to share airspace with commercial planes.

Marion said the Kestrel system would be subject to the same privacy and safety rules and regulations governing all law enforcement technologies. "Like a police helicopter, it can't be used to see inside your house," he said.

Marion said in one incident last month, agents actually did spot people throwing bags of narcotics over a fence and were able to apprehend the individuals involved. But they couldn't find the drugs. So, system operators retraced the steps of the suspects through Kestrel's TiVo-like archival feature, which can file 30-days' worth of imagery. And CBP officials were able to locate the stash, Marion said.

Kestrel's price runs between $1 million and $2 million, plus the cost of flying the aerostat, Logos officials said. But "there's a lot of talk about taking the resources that have been used in theater and perhaps using them in the field on the border," Marion said. "The temperature extremes seem very similar" in the U.S. Southwest and Middle East deserts, so "if there were modifications they would be quite minimal."

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