The government’s funding request in fiscal year 2021 for border security technology favors new artificial intelligence (AI)-based tower systems that can autonomously detect illegal border crossing activity, the head of Customs and Border Protection told a House budget panel in late February.
The Border Patrol was asked to prioritize their technology needs during the FY ’21 budget build and said they need the Autonomous Surveillance Towers (ASTs), Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of CBP, told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee during a hearing to review his agency’s budget request for the next fiscal year.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said that the Mobile Modular Surveillance Systems (M2S2) are the “next-generation” of mobile surveillance capability for CBP and a “force multiplier,” which is why Congress provided $15 million in the FY ’20 budget to begin procuring the systems. He asked Morgan whether CBP was moving funding out of the new (M2S2) program in favor of the AST program, saying he’s heard “rumors” to that effect.
Morgan agreed on the benefits of mobile surveillance technology but said budget tradeoffs had to be made, saying the AST systems are considered “integral” too.
The AST systems are “infused with AI, meaning it’s not going to take an operator anymore to run that tower,” Morgan replied. “They’re self-sufficient, they’re energy sufficient, and they’re standalone. They’re also semi-mobile as well going forward, so we are still committed to the mobile surveillance units.”
The vast majority of CBP’s FY ’21 budget request for border security in FY ’21 is for $2 billion for its border wall system, which consists of physical barriers, related infrastructure such as access road, and some technology. The Trump administration is asking Congress for nearly $2 billion for the wall system and another $95.6 million for separate border security technology investments.
For the AST systems, CBP is seeking $28 million, more than for any other border security technology system. Congress provided the program $28 million in FY ’19 and $32.1 million in FY ‘20. CBP has deployed some ASTs around its sectors in San Diego and Laredo, Texas. The towers are supplied by Anduril Industries.
In the FY ’21 budget request, CBP says the $28 million will buy 30 AST systems. It said previous appropriations combined with the new request will fund 200 towers.
“This technology is an autonomous solution capable of detecting, identifying, and tracking illicit cross border activity,” CBP says in its budget request, including categorizing by human, animal and vehicle. The towers are “rapidly re-locatable” and provide mid-range surveillance, which the agency defines as 1.5 miles for human targets and at least 2.5 miles for vehicles.
“AST enhances agent’s ability to monitor multiple events and improves operational efficiency, reducing time spent on detections that do not require operator attention or law enforcement intervention,” a CBP spokesperson told HSR.
The AST systems provide around-the-clock surveillance and reduce the number of personnel needed to operate the system, providing the agency with a cost-effective solution in “extremely rural terrain,” the spokesperson said. The systems also are equipped with multi-modal communications so they can operate “nearly anywhere, including locations with zero infrastructure, providing CBP with greater flexibility,” the spokesperson said. Border Patrol agents make the final determination on what an item of interest is and the towers allow operators to push information to agents in the filed in real time using a Team Awareness Kit, the spokesperson said.
The agency is asking Congress for $15 million for M2S2 in FY ‘21, the same amount appropriated in FY ’20. The request covers the purchase of 10 to 15 of the light truck-mounted surveillance systems, which are equipped with radar and camera sensors and backhaul communications capability. The modular nature of the systems allows Border Patrol to tailor the configuration to its mission needs on the northern and southern borders.
CBP is evaluating the M2S2 systems. Companies such as FLIR Systems [FLIR] and the U.S. division of Israel’s Elbit Systems [ESLT] are offering M2S2 solutions.
Ruppersberger also asked Morgan about CBP’s commitment to the Multirole Enforcement Aircraft (MEA) program, which is being provided by Sierra Nevada Corp. Congress provided funding for three aircraft in the FY ’20 budget but CBP isn’t seeking more MEAs in FY ’21.
As with the border security technology, CBP’s Air and Marine Office was asked for its priorities in FY ’21 and said a new AMO facility in Laredo is the top priority as is sustaining and upgrading existing aircraft, Morgan replied. CBP remains “absolutely committed” to the MEA program, he said.