In the dead of the desert night, several lumbering figures approach the U.S. border from the Mexican side. Are they smugglers bringing heroin or cocaine into the country, undocumented immigrants risking their lives, or maybe just a couple of hapless cows looking for fresh grass?
Currently, a lack of adequate technology makes it remarkably difficult for the U.S. Border Patrol to get an early warning of just what type of threat such incidents represent, despite an extensive network of video cameras and unattended ground sensors.
That is why the House Homeland Security Committee's passage of a $10 billion border security bill last week is an important first step in plugging porous frontier areas without breaking the budget. Although Democrats were quick to skewer the Republican-backed bill as an empty gesture to please President Trump, the language of the committee's bill rejects Trump's grandiose campaign pledge of a "big, beautiful" wall stretching from coast to coast.
In doing so, it is part of a growing consensus within U.S. government agencies that the wall needs to be "smart" — a hybrid of physical and technological barriers that give Border Patrol agents far better awareness of threats than they currently have.
The bill from Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) states that a physical wall should be built only "where practical and effective." It also includes sensible suggestions by Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), the member with the largest border district in Congress, that the wall infrastructure should include the deployment of radar, light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology and other sensors.
As the debate moves forward, it is important to recognize that not all technology is equal when it comes to effectively policing the border. The emphasis needs to be on solutions that help create what DHS officials call a "layered defense" or "persistent impedance" — in other words, systems that hamper the forward progress of would-be intruders and give agents a pre-emptive view of who they are, what they are and how many there are. Once someone crosses the border and steps onto U.S. soil illegally, the clock starts ticking for apprehending them. The more agents know about what is heading to the border in advance or in real-time, the more time they will have to intercept.
Currently, much of the surveillance effort is done through a network of thousands of cameras along the 1,954-mile southwest border. They are a valuable, cost-effective tool but are too tied to human attention and error. Thousands of man hours are effectively wasted every week as blurry-eyed agents or contractors sift through images seeking anything suspicious. They certainly get their share of bunny rabbits and skunks, because some of those cameras cannot tell the difference — they just detect movement.
Officials I speak with at the border say that 99.9 percent of suspicious activity picked up by cameras turns out to be false alarms. Unattended ground sensors that detect movement is another technology widely deployed in the thousands at the border that looks out-of-date. While such sensors can alert agents to something crossing the border, it gives them no idea of exactly what passed over it, how many are in a group, or where the culprits are heading. It could be a deer, a goat, or a gang of heavily armed drug smugglers. There are agents whose sole, unenviable job is to go around replacing the sensors' batteries.
By far the most promising technology that the bill promises to consider is LIDAR, a system that uses lasers instead of radio waves to build up a 3-D image. A crucial part of the race to build a self-driving car, the technology has huge potential as part of a virtual perimeter wall that would be far cheaper and more effective than Trump's bricks-and-mortar vision. The real-time 3-D image would enable agents to see exactly what is coming towards the border at a distance of several hundred meters away and to know the direction the intruders are heading once they cross over.
The system would only alert agents when it detects a genuine threat, as opposed to Peter Cottontail hopping along. It would also help circumvent one of the thorniest issues involved in building a physical wall, eminent domain, or the need the government would have to seize land from private owners along the border. And it would be relatively easy on taxpayers' pockets. Estimates of its cost come in as low as $500,000 per mile, in contrast to as high as $27 million per mile for a physical barrier.
We need to look at all options, both physical and virtual, for improving border security. But a core part of the solution should be technology that helps save lives by giving our border agents all the information needed to properly respond to threats in the shortest amount of time.