Construction began last Monday on sensor and communication towers along 23 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico for the first deployment of the technology component of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) although the Department of Homeland Security must still approve the use of the cameras and radars that will be hung on the towers, a decision that could come later this month pending approval by DHS the all the technical issues with the technology have been worked out, says the director of the border security program.

“So again the significance of what we are doing here is this is the initiation of the no kidding, real SBI system,” Mark Borkowski, executive director for SBI at Customs and Border Protection, tells reporters during a media roundtable.

The virtual fence portion of SBI is called SBInet and has had a troubled development over the past three years due to challenges with sensor integration, radar clutter in certain weather conditions and creating the Common Operating Picture (COP) software that will allow Border Patrol agents to have vastly improved situational awareness versus current systems. Those challenges have led to program delays. Now DHS appears to have a relatively tight leash on SBInet.

“The department is not going to allow this program to go forward without…enough certainty that the Border Patrol has been adequately involved and we have a reasonable plan going forward,” Borkowski says.

Borkowski is “very comfortable” that technical issues that arose during system qualification testing at Playas, N.M., last December have been resolved but he has to convince DHS that that’s the case. Those issues included things like debugging software code and camera stabilization in windy conditions. If DHS agrees at a meeting that could come in May then SBI prime contractor Boeing [BA] can begin putting the various surveillance sensors on nine fixed towers that are part of the Tucson-1 deployment.

The sensors consist of day and night cameras supplied by FLIR Corp. [FLIR] and radars supplied by Griffon Corp.’s [GFF] Telephonics division. In addition to the nine sensor towers, eight microwave relay communications towers will also be constructed to relay the sensor data, which will be linked by the COP at a single Border Patrol station within the Tucson sector.

SBInet is expected to provide a 70 percent detection rate against incursions between ports of entry. Two hundred unattended ground sensors (UGS) for helping to detect illegal activity will also be deployed in Tucson-1 and will also be linked to the COP. The UGS would provide detection capabilities beyond the 70 percent obtained with the cameras and radars. In addition to the SBInet technologies, the Border Patrol will continue to rely on legacy sensor systems, physical fencing, as well as its agents to manage control of the border.

System Acceptance Testing

If DHS gives the not to move forward with the sensor deployment, the system should be ready this summer for System Acceptance Testing, Borkowski says. Those engineering tests will be similar to the qualification tests last year except now they will occur on the border environment and allow “us to confirm that we actually built what we thought we were building,” he said. Following those tests Borkowski hopes to turn the Tucson-1 system over to the Border Patrol in December for a formal operational test.

The upcoming meeting with DHS will also address the second deployment of towers and sensors along a 30 mile stretch of border in the Tucson Sector called Ajo-1. Approval to hang the Tucson-1 sensors will result in the go-ahead for full deployment of Ajo-1, Borkowski says. That deployment will include six sensor towers, with the same sensors used in Tucson-1, and six microwave communications towers, and 200 more UGS, all linked via the COP to a patrol station in Ajo, Ariz.

If all goes will with the forthcoming deployments and eventual operational testing, then sometime in early 2010 Borkowski says that DHS will make a decision whether to permit deployment of SBInet along the entire length of Arizona’s border with Mexico, which is over 300 miles. That deployment figures to wrap up by 2011 but could extend until 2012, depending on funding and any other challenges that may arise, he said.

The Obama administration’s nearly $780 million funding request for SBI, which includes some additional fencing as well as roads and lighting, supports the 2011 deployment, Borkowski says.

So far Boeing has received $600 million for SBInet. The base period on Boeing’s contract expires in September but Borkowski said CBP will likely award the company the first of three one-year extensions. However, later this summer the agency and DHS expect to work out a longer-term acquisition strategy for the program that looks at whether the right contract and industry players are being utilized, he said.

The Border Patrol views SBInet as a force multiplier. The legacy Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) used along stretches of the country’s southwest border are monopoles with cameras attached that point in a single direction. An agent at a border station has to monitor the camera display for any activity.

The sensor towers in SBInet will permit a far greater area of coverage by a single agent. The ground sensing radar will be able to pick up multiple tracks of activity, allowing either a day or night camera to be slewed to classify a particular track.

“And that also enhances our safety in the field because we are able to classify what’s coming at us and respond appropriately,” Dave Hoffman, division chief for the Border Patrol, says during the media call. Ultimately, SBInet will “improve our ability to detect, respond, classify and bring to the appropriate resolution any kind of incursion,” he says.

Border Patrol agents operating along Arizona’s border with Mexico account for 45 percent of all apprehensions. Most of the incursions are by illegal immigrants the Border Patrol there isn’t seeing a lot of the violence associated with Mexican drug cartels. However, Hoffman says for the past few years Border Patrol agents are increasingly victims of assaults along the border.

In addition to the Arizona deployments, last Thursday CBP in Buffalo, N.Y., began construction toward the first installations of legacy RVSS systems along the northern border as part of an upcoming pilot test of sensor technology. In July construction for deployments in Detroit, Mich., will begin he said. In addition to RVSS systems, CBP also plans to deploy Mobile Surveillance Systems that have cameras and radars on them in other limited northern border deployments as part of the demonstration efforts to see how well the legacy systems work in those environments. MSS systems are also deployed along portions of the southwest border.

However, the focal point for SBInet remains along the southwest border. By 2014 CBP hopes to have all but 500 or so miles of the country’s border with Mexico covered by the virtual and physical fence at a cost of $6.7 billion. The remaining 500 miles are in the Marfa Sector in Texas and would also be included in SBInet following deployments elsewhere along the southwest.

Early in 2008 CBP accepted the original SBInet deployment which covered a 28-mile stretch of border in Arizona. However, that system never worked as originally planned and became a prototype demonstration dubbed Project-28 for continued testing of technologies. That system is still operating and has aided in 5,200 apprehensions, Borkowski says.

Lessons learned from P-28 run from improvements to the COP, working out radar clutter issues to better see certain tracks, and having larger icons on the display screens, Tim Engman, assistant chief of the Border Patrol, says. He said the biggest improvements stemming from P-28 have dealt with the COP, specifically creating a “bearing line” so that an agent in the field can better know where an “item of interest” is, he says.