Beefing Up Border Security with Surveillance Technology

With more than 7,000 miles of land border and 95,000 miles of coastline between the United States, Canada and Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents have a tough job making sure that the borders of the U.S. are kept safe.

With a remit to protect the U.S. from illegal weapons, contraband, drugs and people without hindering legal entry and exit, the CBP needs more than 20,000 agents to protect the country. However, these agents alone are not nearly enough to patrol the entire U.S. border and the CBP makes extensive use of technology in order to optimize its efforts.

The core technology used can be split into two main groups: surveillance systems and ground sensors.

Surveillance Systems

In addition to the wearable cameras used by individual agents, the CBP also makes use of a large number of cameras placed along the border. These cameras take two forms: remote surveillance systems and mobile surveillance systems.

Remote Surveillance Systems

Remote video surveillance systems (RVSS) help patrols by allowing agents to view remote areas that are difficult to get to or even completely inaccessible. The systems consist of two cameras: a color camera and an additional thermal camera.

The color camera works well during the day to spot illegal movements and the thermal camera is used at night to pick up the heat given off by vehicles and people. The cameras sit atop an 80-foot pole and offer a large viewing range.

Border patrol vehicle

While these aren't exactly hidden cameras, their visibility is part of their success – traffickers and criminals can see they are in a watched area and the cameras act as a deterrent.

Mobile Surveillance Systems

Mobile surveillance systems work in a similar fashion, with the additional advantage that their location can be changed. Typically, a mobile system is installed on a flatbed truck, but smaller versions are also available; mounted on smaller vehicles, they have better access to hard-to-reach places, albeit with a smaller visibility range.

These cameras can be parked anywhere with vehicular access and the fact that they are movable means one camera can cover the ground of several.

Ground Sensors

Ground sensors are used in strategic locations to detect the movement of people and goods. They take three different forms: infrared, seismic and magnetic.

When one of these sensors detects a large object such as a person or a vehicle, a signal is received by an agent and prompts an investigation to begin. The wireless sensors have been calibrated to ensure that smaller entities, such as wild animals, do not cause alerts.

Magnetic sensors are best used to detect passing vehicles. The magnets in the sensors respond to the metal in cars and trucks and flag the objects.

Seismic sensors can detect movement from both people and vehicles. As people and vehicles move, they send small shockwaves into the ground that are measured by the sensor.

Infrared sensors work as motion detectors - an infrared (IR) LED emits infrared light, and if people move in front of this light, it is reflected back and detected by the sensor, which then triggers an alert.

The choice of sensor used depends on environmental factors, as the CBP polices a wide variety of environments from desert to mountainous.

Despite these technological advances, the CBP still has the tough job of patrolling and protecting the borders of the U.S. By continually researching and implementing new technology, agents can stay one step ahead of criminals who seek to violate the law, and are steadily reducing the amount of illegal traffic across the border.

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