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Powerful app speeds detection, heightens awareness

Release Date: 
April 2, 2018

A smartphone application that gives CBP frontline personnel instant information about their surroundings will vastly change how border crossings and other illegal activity is detected while improving officer and agent safety. Developed by the Air Force for the U.S. Special Operations Command the Team Awareness Kit connects surveillance devices used by Border Patrol and other CBP components.

Agent Jeremy Walker (left) from the San Diego Sector, Brownfield Station, and Agent Barlan Davila from the sector’s Chula Vista Station work the new application on their phone during a demonstration of the new technology. Photo by Jeff Underwood
Agent Jeremy Walker (left) from the
San Diego Sector, Brownfield Station,
and Agent Barlan Davila from the
sector’s Chula Vista Station work the
new application on their phone during
a demonstration of the new technology.
Photo by Jeff Underwood

The app, demonstrated March 22 in San Diego, delivers topography, personnel locations, distances and mapping gleaned from multiple sensors to law enforcement and first responders. With just a glance to their handheld screens, agents can visualize their surroundings.

The app reduces sending information to agents by radio from a central office, where transmissions can be intermittent and from multiple law enforcement components. Trying to visualize an unfolding event that way increases the time and quality of a response, notes Assistant Chief Chris Pietrzak, who’s the deputy program manager for the DHS Science & Technology’s Apex Border Situational Awareness Program.

Using the app is “the difference between getting directions over the phone or through Google Earth,” he explained. The technology is part of a “smart border” goal where “people get the right information at the right time.

Apex is a research effort within DHS aimed at developing technology that improves security and situational awareness. The application is one of several initiatives under the Apex umbrella and it’s now being evaluated by both special operations and operational units in Tucson, Arizona. The product was recently used to support communications and coordination among the first responders to Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Gaining an awareness of one’s surroundings is a snap with the apps multi-dimensional display. Photo by Jeff Underwood
Gaining an awareness of one’s
surroundings is a snap with the apps
multi-dimensional display. Photo by
Jeff Underwood

Getting the system to function required CBP, DHS Science & Technology and the Border Patrol’s Program Management Office and Enforcement Systems Division to work with the manufacturers of the sensors, radar systems and other detection tools to design them to communicate with the app.

During the demonstration in San Diego’s Chula Vista Station, participants used the app to receive data from ground sensors, radar tracks, and an aircraft in a simulated cross-border smuggling scenario. The app allowed responding agents, CBP personnel at tactical operations centers and CBP leadership in Washington D.C., including Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, to follow the events as they happened.

The exercise involved tracking agents acting as illegal aliens who just slipped through the border after being detected by sensors mounted on a Border Patrol surveillance truck. Their movement immediately showed on the smartphones of the agents monitoring the area.

As the illegals continued north, they set off other sensors and the data was automatically shared. Then a small pilotless aircraft, a quadcopter, was launched to visually identify the intruders and their location for the apprehension. “Nobody has to talk about it,” said Assistant Chief John Mennell, a member of both the DHS and application development teams. “They see the sensor hits going off.”

Agents mimicking illegal aliens who just slipped through the border were central to the March 22 app demonstration. Photo by Jeff Underwood
Agents mimicking illegal aliens who
just slipped through the border were
central to the March 22 app
demonstration. Photo by Jeff
Underwood

New products, such as the application and innovative sensors are a CBP priority. By working with companies on the cutting edge of detection and surveillance devices, the agency is aiming to stay ahead of criminals who use technology to evade the law.

Pietrzak said the Border Patrol prefers teaming with smaller companies that “may have 80 percent of what we want” and then work with them to develop the technology.

A special agent from ICE Homeland Security Investigations worked next to CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan who was unable to travel to San Diego. Using ICE devices containing the application, the agent quickly kept the Commissioner informed in real time throughout the exercise. It also showed the software’s ability to work across organizational boundaries.

“Innovation is imperative to our mission at CBP,” said Commissioner McAleenan, pointing out the focus is not only on piloting technology, but to find faster ways of transitioning from pilot to deployment “We must continue to find ways to innovate at scale, but at a cost that’s feasible.”

Last published: 
April 2, 2018