Later in January the Department of Homeland Security plans to issue a “funding opportunity” to improve the scanning technology that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses to screen vehicles and cargo entering the U.S. through ports of entry by leveraging advanced software, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Wednesday.

The forthcoming business opportunity follows recent prompting by congressional appropriators directing that CBP move ahead on introducing artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) into non-intrusive inspection (NII) systems.

In fiscal years 2019 and 2020 combined, Congress provided CBP with more than $600 million for the purchase and deployment of NII systems to dramatically increase the percentages of personal vehicles and cargo trucks to be scanned by large-scale X-ray systems as they enter the U.S. at land ports of entry.

“A portion of those funds were to be dedicated to fundamentally changing how inspections were conducted,” Senate appropriators said in a report last August. “Rather than relying solely on a CBP officer to manually operate inspections, the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities would detect anomalies earlier and faster, pushing notifications to CBP officers for review.”

Mayorkas, during a virtual event hosted and moderated by the Washington Post, said the upcoming funding opportunity will “leverage artificial intelligence to couple with that technology to maximize our law enforcement, detection, interdiction and prosecution impact.”

The event focused on DHS’ efforts to combat the continuing rise of the deadly synthetic drug fentanyl being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico, most of which comes through the ports of entry in vehicles and cargo shipments.

Deployments of new NII systems in primary inspection lanes were slow at first due to contracting difficulties and related construction, but in the past year DHS has accelerated the installations of the technology, Mayorkas said.

In 2021, CBP awarded Astrophysics, Leidos [LDOS] and OSI Systems’ [OSIS] Rapiscan Systems division contracts for new low-energy portals that allow occupants to remain inside a vehicle while driving through a checkpoint as they enter the U.S. Earlier that year, the agency also awarded contracts to Leidos, Rapiscan, and Britain’s Smiths Detection for multi-energy portal scanners that allow for the screening of trucks at ports of entry without the driver having to vacate the vehicle.

In fiscal year 2021, NII systems scanned fewer than 2 percent of passenger vehicles and 15 percent of commercial vehicles entering the U.S. from Mexico. The new drive-through NII systems, installed in primary inspection lanes, will increase those percentages to 40 percent and above 70 percent, respectively, in FY ’23, a CBP official told a House panel last May.

Congress has directed DHS to ultimately scan 100 percent of cargo and vehicles entering the U.S. for contraband, drugs, and other illicit items.

In the FY ’23 Omnibus spending bill signed by President Biden in late December, CBP is getting another $69.9 million for NII systems, including $15.2 million to install equipment in lanes exiting the U.S., and $10 million for AI/ML efforts. The NII package also includes $44.9 million to deploy previously funded NII systems, related civil works infrastructure, and site preparation.

The FY ’23 bill also rescinds $73.2 million in unobligated FY ’22 NII funds “due to continued concerns with the management of the NII program.” Language in the Omnibus goes onto say that, “To date, CBP has failed to request any funding to address unfunded requirements for civil works, installation, and site prep for previously funded NII equipment to be deployed in preprimary lanes at LPOEs (land ports of entry), which could require more than an additional $200 million.”