CBP to Test Autonomous Drones for Use at the Border

A Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall along a new section of the border wall with Mexico in Calexico, Calif.

A Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall along a new section of the border wall with Mexico in Calexico, Calif. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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The experimental project reached the fourth and final stage of development: testing in real-world environments.

The Customs and Border Protection agency is getting ready to test autonomous drones that can provide situational awareness for agents working between ports of entry.

The agency has been working with colleagues at Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate Silicon Valley Innovation Program to build and test prototypes of Planck Aerosystems’ autonomous small unmanned aircraft systems, or sUAS. The agencies announced a fourth round of funding Thursday, granting Planck $200,000 to test its prototype in operational environments over the next three to six months.

“Planck’s system capability enables a sUAS to launch from and land on the bed of a moving vehicle, in addition to providing fully autonomous navigation coupled with a securing mechanism, advanced computer vision capabilities and customized communications interfaces,” according to the announcement from S&T. “Through a combination of integrated technologies, including full-motion video, automatic target detection and geolocation, Planck seeks to provide CBP agents with a portable, ruggedized detection system that provides real-time situational awareness in the field.”

The Silicon Valley Innovation Program uses the department’s other transaction authority to foster development of technologies that can be applied directly to agency missions. As part of the incremental funding structure, the program offers individual projects up to $800,000 across four phases, beginning with $50,000 to $200,000 awarded to develop a proof-of-concept demo.

If the demo is successful, S&T can opt to continue the project with an award of between $50,000 and $200,000 for phase two, which consists of building a pilot-ready prototype within three to six months. Phases three and four—with the same funding and time ranges—provide for testing the prototype through a pilot and in various operational scenarios, respectively.

Planck Aerosystems’ project was awarded full funding for the fourth phase to begin testing its systems in live environments.

“S&T is looking for technologies to enhance the efficacy of CBP patrols while simultaneously increasing the safety of patrolling agents,” said Melissa Oh, managing director of the Silicon Valley Innovation Program. “We look forward to the ways Planck will further refine its technology in support of this homeland security mission.”