DHS considers unmanned vehicles for SBInet

The Homeland Security Department is considering using $100 million in funding from the economic stimulus law to add unmanned aerial vehicles to the SBInet surveillance system on the U.S./Mexico border, a senior official said today.

The other options under consideration are upgrading tactical communications or accelerating deployment of the permanent towers for the first phase of the SBInet system in Arizona, said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative Program Executive Office in DHS' Customs and Border Protection agency. The office oversees SBInet's virtual and physical fence projects.

"The open question is, where do we put the effort?" Borkowski said. "We could build more towers faster, make the command and control system more powerful, and bring in unmanned aerial systems, or upgrade the tactical communications."

The stimulus law allocates $100 million for fencing, infrastructure and technology related to security efforts on the southwestern border, including SBInet. That is in addition to the $770 million allocated in fiscal 2009 for such projects.

SBInet is an electronic surveillance system composed of cameras, radars, ground sensors and communications equipment that transmit information to border patrol agents at operations centers. A 28-mile prototype has been operating in Arizona since February 2008. The total cost for the U.S./Mexico border project is estimated at $6.7 billion, Borkowski said.

The Government Accountability Office criticized the system, being built by prime contractor Boeing Co., in June 2007 because the prototype did not satisfy all users. Borkowski came on board in November 2008, shortly after deployment schedules were delayed due to problems in obtaining federal land permits.

CBP performed qualification, integration and stress tests on the SBInet system in December 2008 at an outdoor laboratory facility in New Mexico that uncovered several small technical glitches. Borkowski told the House Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee today that officials are completing work on fixing those software bugs this month and that construction of permanent towers for the first 53-mile segment in Arizona will begin in April.

It will be a permanent operational system and not a prototype, Borkowski said. Border patrol agents will use the system for a few months, after which officials will make a decision, probably by the end of the year, on whether to deploy the same system along the entire Arizona/Mexico border.

Borkowski said after the hearing that he hopes to avoid the problems experienced with the SBInet prototype known as Project 28. "In hindsight, it didn't work," Borkowski said. "The difference here is, this is a system that I am committing to you that it will work."

CBP has had some concerns with Boeing's performance, but many of those problems are common to big projects, Borkowski said, adding that the company has the skills needed to do the job. Boeing likely will continue working on SBInet for an unspecified period of time after its initial contract expires in September 2009, he said.

For the longer term, Borkowski said he will review the acquisition strategy for SBInet and make recommendations.

From a technical point of view, he said he is considering whether to move toward an open architecture for SBInet, which could affect the acquisition strategy.