Robotics

Border bots target tunnel smuggling

Pointman handheld controller

A handheld controller is relays signals from the robots Border Patrol agents are using to explore smuggling tunnels along the U.S.-Mexican border.

The Border Patrol's new mobile technology project isn't your typical federal mobile application.

The agency is expanding its wireless robot-based program to help it peer more deeply into the illicit cross-border tunnels that nag Southwestern border security, without putting agents in harm's way.

The Border Patrol unveiled three new Pointman tactical robots at a Jan. 14 demonstration in the border town of Nogales, Ariz., in the agency's Tucson sector.

Tunnel work can be hazardous to agents. The passages have tight spaces and sometimes-unstable walls, while darkness and blind corners can conceal heavily armed smugglers or other dangers.

The robots are small -- 15 inches by 19 inches, and six to 18 inches tall depending on how their camera booms are set. They can compact into a seven-inch-high package to crawl into tight spaces, and are equipped with microphones and two cameras that can see in low and/or infrared light. The signal data from the robot is transmitted wirelessly to the system operator's handheld command device outside the tunnel.

Typically, the robot's underground wireless signal can travel 200 meters line of sight, but soil conditions particular to each location can affect it, said Border Patrol agent Peter Bidegain. As a result, the robots can't be effectively networked to another point -- like a more-distant command post -- and must be controlled by a nearby operator's handheld control pad.

Border Patrol agent prepares to deploy a Pointman robot to explore a tunnel along the U.S.-Mexican border.

The Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and federal drug enforcement agencies have pressed smugglers hard on the border's surface to stem illegal traffic in contraband – mostly drugs, but people too. As a result, smugglers have been investing heavily in ambitious and sometimes-elaborate alternatives, including light aircraft and ocean-going boats. Subterranean tunnels, some with their own air processing and rail-car transport systems, are capable of moving more cargo – human and otherwise -- than most alternatives.

In the last decade, smugglers have grown increasingly innovative, apparently employing professional engineers to design some of the structures.

In 2012, U.S. border agencies and local police in the San Diego Tunnel Task Force used detective work and informants to track down a tunnel near the Otay Mesa Port of entry that ran from a warehouse on the U.S. side for 612 yards under the border and into neighboring Tijuana. Border agents seized 32 tons of marijuana from inside the tunnel and the staging areas near it. The passageway was equipped with electric rail cars, lighting, reinforced walls and wooden floors. On the Mexican side, the tunnel's entrance was hidden beneath a hydraulically controlled steel door that covered an elevator beneath the warehouse floor.

Bidegain said although the Tucson sector has seen a slow overall decline in the number of tunnels in the last three years or so -- from 13 discoveries in 2011 to six in 2013 -- "they aren't going away." The Border Patrol discovered its first tunnel of 2014 in Nogales -- a 133-foot long construction -- on Jan. 9.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group