By 2023 the U.S. government will significantly expand the percentages of commercial and passenger vehicles entering the U.S. through land parts of entry on the southwest border as the Department of Homeland Security ramps up purchases of scanning equipment, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said on Tuesday.

Currently, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) scans 15 percent of commercial vehicles and 1 percent of passenger vehicles and in the next few years will increase those percentages to 72 percent and 40 percent, respectively, Chad Wolf told the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee in its first hearing to review the fiscal year 2021 budget request for DHS.

The large-scale non-intrusive inspection (NII) systems are used by CBP to screen for illicit drugs, contraband and other illegal goods and even migrants hiding inside conveyances. Wolf said that most illegal drugs entering the U.S. come through ports of entry and one-third is being smuggled in between ports of entry.

In the past year there has been an increase in drug smuggling between ports of entry “so we’re growing concerned about that as well,” Wolf said in response to a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Congress in FY ’19 provided CBP $564 million to purchase large-scale NII systems for deployment on the southwest border within three years and in FY ’20 appropriated another $59.1 million for a combination of large-scale and small-scale systems, as well as research, development and evaluation, and support contracts.

CBP has been slow to spend the funding as it sorts out its requirements and acquisition plans. The agency has issued a draft Request for Proposals (RFP) for multi-energy portal (MEP) scanners for screening commercial vehicles and in the coming months expects to issue a draft solicitation for low-energy systems to scan passenger vehicles, Garret Reinhart, chief of the Large Scale NII Branch at CBP’s Office of Field Operations, told Defense Daily in an interview on Monday.

Reinhart said that CBP plans to release the final RFPs for the drive-through multi-energy and drive-through low-energy scanners before the end of this year. According to CBP’s budget documents that accompanied its FY ’21 request to Congress earlier this month, the agency is planning to award contracts in the fourth quarter of FY ’20, which ends this September, with deployments commencing in FY ’21.

Based on the expected timing of the RFPs, it would seem that awards aren’t expected until sometime in 2021.

Reinhart said the contracts for both the MEP and passenger vehicle scanning systems will “more than likely” be multiple award indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts.

CBP is preparing to conduct live evaluations of multi-energy and low-energy scanners at several ports in the coming months, with the hope to begin the MEP pilot in Brownsville, Texas, in April and pilot passenger vehicle scanners in Anzalduas and Donna, Texas.

The MEP systems allow a passenger cab to be scanned at a level safe for humans to remain with the vehicle and then automatically switch to a higher energy level when the cargo container is being scanned, thereby allowing for increased throughput. Reinhart said that with current scanning technology, only about 12 trucks per hour are screened, noting that the MEPs will allow 80 trucks per hour, improving security while facilitating trade and travel.

The NII screening of commercial and passenger vehicles is currently done in secondary inspection areas. The new systems will be deployed in pre-primary inspection lanes.

CBP has an installed base of more than 300 large-scale NII systems supplied by several vendors including Leidos [LDOS], OSI Systems’ [OSIS] Rapiscan division, and Smiths Detection, which is part of Britain’s Smiths Group. The agency’s active procurement contracts are with Leidos and Rapiscan.

In addition to improving throughput and enhancing security, the new scanning technologies that CBP plans to acquire will also provide greater connectivity, allowing for remote screening, common viewers, and more data analytics.

The House earlier this month passed a bill requiring DHS to develop a plan for 100 percent screening of commercial and passenger vehicles entering the U.S. at land ports of entry using large-scale NII systems. The Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Reinhart said that for now the focus is getting the new technology deployed to sort out what it can actually achieve.

“At the end of the day, the idea is to facilitate trade and travel, increase our scanning rate and our enforcement posture at the same time,” he said.