Customs improves system to track drug smugglers

During the next six months, the Customs Service plans to complete a three-year, $17 million upgrade to the computers it uses to track airplanes flown by suspected drug smugglers, creating what the agency claims is the most modern air surveillance system in the country.

The Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center (DAICC) at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., plans to use two high-performance Power Challenge XL servers from Silicon Graphics Inc. to provide its radar controllers with the capability to monitor twice as many potential targets as the aircraft cross into U.S. airspace, mainly from Mexico and the Caribbean. Higher-resolution graphics, more sophisticated tracking algorithms and digital intelligence maps will make it easier to distinguish suspicious craft from legitimate flights, agency officials said.

"There are fewer smugglers" than in the past, said Bill McGrath, manager of Customs' command, control, communications and intelligence. "But those that remain are using more sophisticated aircraft, so we had to meet the threat."

Built by Decision-Science Applications Inc. (DSA), Colorado Springs, Colo., the Unix-based system replaces proprietary technology installed by integrator GTE Telephonics 10 years ago. "We installed at the time what was considered sufficient hardware and software to do the job," McGrath said. "As technology marched on, our equipment became outdated very rapidly."

Jim Durrett, a computer specialist at DAICC, said, "The old system equipment was no longer made, and the software was becoming nonsupportable."

The old system also was slow. Changing screens could take up to a minute-enough time for controllers to lose track of an aircraft, Durrett said.

The system processes radar feeds from Federal Aviation Administration and Defense Department air traffic control installations. Controllers, who staff DAICC around the clock, sort data on suspected smugglers' planes from commercial traffic and pass this information on to Customs agents or local law enforcement officials.

Customs used the system in April to track a small plane loaded with marijuana that wound up crashing in a Detroit ball field. After a park ranger reported seeing the plane near the U.S.-Mexico border, Customs used the tracking system to predict where the plane was headed. When it was picked up on radar near its expected trajectory, Customs launched three planes to follow it, McGrath said.

"If we did not have [the system], the guy could have popped up, and we would not have been able to associate [the radar data] with him at that border crossing," McGrath said. "He might have been landing somewhere out of radar coverage before we had him."

DAICC's legacy system can monitor 6,000 planes, but the new system allows controllers to follow 12,000 "tracks" and overlay detailed intelligence maps of the terrain underneath the aircraft.

In addition, recently developed software will help controllers screen out extraneous signals from the ground or weather systems, making it harder for planes to hide. With more processing capacity, the agency can add more radar feeds, said Larry Danforth, task leader with vendor DSA. "They're no longer restricted by geography," he said.

The idea for the system came from a prototype that DSA was building for the Navy in 1994 under a rapid systems development procurement program called Have Dungeon, which was being run out of the Air Force Electronic Systems Command. "The scope of the mission for the Navy program was a lot narrower," but it prompted Customs to start its own project, said Lt. Col. Les Cox, who ran Have Dungeon for two years.

Cox said the DAICC project has been the largest and longest-running project in the Have Dungeon program because each module DSA delivered created possibilities for enhancements. "What started out as 'Let's go test the waters' [became] 'Let's go make minimal improvements' to 'Let's do a full upgrade,' " he said.

By February, DSA had delivered eight out of 16 workstations, and the rest are due to go online in December, when the system is expected to be fully operational.

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