SAN ANTONIO—A small division of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that works to leverage private sector technology investments for commercial applications that can meet the needs of front-line officers is searching for capabilities that add autonomy to solutions, data-related communications in austere environments, low-cost sensors, and monitor human health, an official with the agency’s innovation office said here on Wednesday.

Regardless of the technology, the key message to industry is “agent first, agent always and make these things work,” Joshua Powell, deputy director of CBP’s Innovation Team, said at the annual Border Security Expo. He added that “A lot of time agents are in areas where we have no comms, no power and we build our own roads. So, if you have technology that requires those things, make it require less power, less communications and probably not roads.”

Based on its work with CBP agents and officers and understanding their requirements, the innovation office, which has a budget of about $40 million, works to find technologies that can meet these needs and then quickly get them into the field for operators to use and provide feedback for any changes and modifications that may be needed before they can be useful, Powell said.

The agency isn’t looking for a custom solution but if it can meet 80 percent of the need, that’s the “sweet spot,” Powel said. “If it doesn’t make them more efficient and safer, they’re not going to use it,” which in turn negatively impacts the “credibility” of the office, he added.

In the area of autonomy, CBP is looking for technologies that free manpower up to focus on missions, whether this is hardware, artificial intelligence or analytics.

“How do we get computers to do things computers are good at and get personnel back to doing those critical functions that we need the manpower to …oversee?” Powell said.

Powell’s office had an early success within the past few years with a border security sensor tower program known as the Autonomous Surveillance Tower developed and supplied by Anduril Industries, which also provides its LATTICE command and control platform for autonomous operations. The autonomy features make it so Border Patrol operators aren’t bothered with activity such as animals that are detected by the towers but alert on activity such as migrants trekking nearby or vehicles operating in an area.

Now, the Innovation Team is trying to bring automation to a legacy sensor system, the Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS), through the use of “computer vision applications so we can take the agent officer eyes off of those cameras” until they are needed and to reduce manpower requirements, Powell said.  

General Dynamics [GD] provides the RVSS.

Ethics are a key consideration here, Powell said.

“The computer can say, ‘No, there does not need to be a response.’ The computer can never say, ‘Yes, send an agent,’ because that’s what the agents are trained to do. They’re trained to know when there needs to be a law enforcement response and someone needs to be there,” he said.

For communications, Powell said it’s about moving data at increased bandwidth and lower latency to areas and personnel with limited technology, highlighting that CBP operates in 106 countries, more than 100 sectors and stations, and hundreds of ports of entry and other locations. The Innovation Team is trying to leverage the work the CBP Office of Information Technology does on the network side by bringing in low-earth orbit satellite communications, mesh communications and multimodal communications, he said.

The goal “to find a way to create bubbles in the Border Patrol’s environment to get all that data back and directly back to the agents” on their devices, Powell said.

Currently, a major focus for the Innovation Team is figuring out how to take advantage of the ubiquitous low-cost sensors that populate everything from commercial devices to consumer appliances, all of which require little power and bandwidth and are “tiny in scale,” he said.

“How do we create the next generation of sub-$100 sensors that provide that enhanced capability and get that out to the field?” he asked the audience.

The newest focus area for the innovation office is exploiting commercial applications and wearable technologies to measure human performance and resiliency, Powell said. The goal here to improve health and wellness of agents and officers, “because as you all know, without a healthy and mentally well workforce, none of the technology we have matters. And that’s our primary focus.”

Powell said his office is able to leverage investments being made by venture capitalists and other private backers are making in commercial solutions at a 14 to one ratio, meaning that it only costs CBP a dollar for every 14 spent by the private sector researching and developing new technologies.