With the increasingly interconnected nature of our world, people are moving about the globe in ever increasing numbers. The growth in movement has created new challenges for governments to keep their citizens safe from criminal activity, such as smuggling and drug trafficking. Therefore, governments are turning to drones to help monitor and manage their frontiers to ensure safety and stability for their people.
In the United States, the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) has been using drones since as early as the 1970's to help with patrolling the country’s boundaries. The first systems employed a sophisticated network of drones and sensors along the US-Mexico border and they have continued to evolve into the advanced systems employed today. The agency uses several different drones, including the Predator B drone, which is usually associated with the military. These unmanned aerial systems are equipped with a wide array of sophisticated cameras and sensors which help the agency monitor drug trafficking, border crossers, and any other event related to border security. The CBP currently operates drones on both the southern border with Mexico and the northern border with Canada.
As drone technology has advanced, the CBP has been caught in the middle of the debate between the need for increased security and the preservation of privacy and personal freedom. The CBP is pushing for expanded drone operations for a number of reasons and systems are starting to change. Currently the CBP is limited to using large, extremely sophisticated and expensive drones, usually adapted from their military counterparts. These drones are required to operate above 19,000 ft to protect people from any images that can be considered personally identifiable. Advancements in facial recognition technology however, are beginning to be implemented in other areas of security and law enforcement, and the CBP is starting test programs using the same technology coupled with drones.
The CBP is developing several systems designed to keep up with the constantly evolving security situation they are faced with on the border, while simultaneously reducing costs and improving safety for officers and personnel. In its effort to help agents in the field, the US Border Patrol is turning to smaller personal drones to give agents in remote areas the ability to monitor locations where they are currently blind. These small drones can be deployed to assist agents on the ground who are in route to intercept a target or group it detected. This type of system is particularly useful in remote or rugged terrain where no physical wall or fence exists. In fact, less than 30% of the almost 2000-mile-long US-Mexican border has any physical dividers. Most fencing only extends 20 miles beyond urban areas and the rest is patrolled with fixed cameras, motion sensors, and underground seismic sensors that detect when something or someone crosses the border. This system is grossly ineffective since investigating every triggered sensor can take a border agent several hours, and by the time they arrive, the perpetrators have already disappeared. Drones are perfectly suited for tasks like investigating sensor hits and can quickly transmit information to the proper channels. The drone can even be equipped with visual recognition applications, which gives the technology the ability to differentiate false hits like animals from humans and vehicles.
The Department of Homeland Security is also interested in this type of drone for border security. Future projects include using drones to track flying objects crossing the border, such as small aircrafts, other drones, balloons, and any other flying apparatus’ smugglers may develop to cross the border illegally. Another valuable task drones are being used for is to autonomously monitor predetermined stretches of border that are typically not monitored and automatically report unusual activity. Plans are also under way to incorporate vehicle and facial recognition into the drones expanding capabilities, giving authorities the ability to actively compare profile pictures and license plate data.
The CBP considers this kind of identification extremely valuable for agents in the field. In the future, cross referencing this data with criminal records can give agents the information they need to make the right call in the field. Real world scenarios often leave border patrol agents far from backup with inadequate cellular or radio coverage. The small drone deployed from the back of the agent’s vehicle can be a lifesaver if they were to encounter a dangerous situation, such as an armed group of human traffickers. Facial recognition could give them the ability to cross reference criminal records and determine if there is any history of violence on record, such as assaulting an officer.
Government regulations are beginning to loosen for the use of smaller and cheaper drones along the border. With precautions taken for the protection of privacy, especially regarding facial recognition and improved technology for encrypting the data that these smaller drones transmit, they will be able to fill the gaps that traditional surveillance methods struggle to address. Plus, the CBP recognizes that drones will be necessary to use in conjunction with agents and current surveillance technology even in places where physical barriers exist.