CBP seeking face recognition drones to monitor border

April 12, 2017 - 

Customs and Border Protection is soliciting proposals for consumer drones with infrared cameras and facial recognition capabilities, to be deployed by US Border Patrol agents to monitor the border, according to a report by The Verge.

As detailed in a contractor solicitation notice, the proposed “small unmanned aerial systems” are similar to consumer drones manufactured by DJI and Parrot.

The drones would be small enough to be transported in a truck and simple enough to be deployed by a border agent in less than five minutes.

The solicitation notice called for a “sUAS,” a term typically used for consumer-grade drones under 55 pounds. This would be significantly smaller than the Predator B drones previously used by the CBP, which are more expensive and less effective than the agency anticipated.

The document also stated that the proposed drone could “distinguish between natural and artificial features, and between animals, humans, and vehicles at long range”, and includes “facial recognition capabilities that allow it cross-reference any persons identified with relevant law enforcement databases.”

Though this is intended as merely a hypothetical situation, the proposed facial recognition capabilities would work well with Homeland Security’s IDENT database.

The repository currently holds more than 170 million fingerprints and facial images collected from all non-nationals entering the country. In addition, the FBI’s facial recognition checks scans across 411 million photos in state and federal databases.

CBP officials said these in-the-field identification capabilities could help be significantly helpful to agents in the future, especially when cross referenced with criminal records.

“When a Border Patrol agent is out in the field, they may be very far from backup, they may not have great comms coverage,” said Ari Schuler, co-lead of CBP’s Silicon Valley office, which is managing the project. “If they encounter an armed group of human traffickers, for instance, they need to know whether those traffickers have a criminal record or are known to have assaulted an officer.”

The notice also mentioned it was seeking Siri-style voice commands, which would prove to be useful to border agents since they often carry heavy equipment or need to be flexible in their movements while operating the drone.

The solicitation has attracted a great deal of interest from several companies, leading the CBP to move up the submission deadline to April 27th.

So far three companies have been granted Phase One awards for prototyping, with projects for drone-mounted millimeter wave scanning and lightweight radar systems announced in December. CBP officials said more awards are in the works.

One contractor said that CBP has been focusing on devices that are able to document an incident and notify other agents without being susceptible to hacking or signal interception.

“Anybody that can do all those things in a short period of time is going to get the money,” said Derek Lyons, a technology scout at Beyond the Drone who has talked with CBP on behalf of BirdsEyeView Aerobotics. “The big question is, how quickly can they get something? Small companies can have a hard time estimating how far along they are.”

The drone project arrives as CBP works toward building a physical wall at the Mexican border. Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said in a congressional hearing Monday that the wall is unlikely to cover the entire border area.

As a result, surveillance equipment and other technologies would have to supplement the wall, Kelly said.

CBP officials said that technology will play an important role even in areas where a physical wall is constructed.

“Even where you see physical barriers or infrastructure today, it’s in conjunction with agents and surveillance technology,” said CBP assistant chief Chris Pietrzak. “There are alternative mechanisms by which we can establish surveillance, and sUAS is one of them.”

Previously reported, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency updated the industry on its plans for biometric exit since it issued its initial request for information (RFI), CBP OIT Biometric Exit Acquisition last June, emphasizing that it will “continue to engage with industry regarding biometric exit”.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.