Border Patrol installs new surveillance towers in Big Bend region

photo courtesy of Anduril / The tower’s radar and camera system has a multi-mile radius.

BIG BEND – Border Patrol deployed a new line of surveillance towers in the Big Bend Sector within the last three weeks, according to the technology company, Anduril, that developed them.

Using radar systems in conjunction with high-powered cameras, Anduril’s AI-integrated tower is able to analyze exactly what is moving inside its multi-mile surveillance radius. Through a software known as Lattice, the 30-foot tower is able to determine if the moving object is –– for example –– a human, a bird or even an incoming cruise missile. The system then alerts Border Patrol agents who can decide whether to further investigate the anomaly in the landscape.

In January, President Biden introduced legislation to bring more technology to the U.S Mexico border. Biden’s proposal, while light on specifics, “authorizes the DHS Secretary to develop and implement a strategy to manage and secure the southern border between ports of entry that focuses on flexible solutions and technologies that expand the ability to detect illicit activity.”

Anduril –– which is named after the sword wielded by one of the main characters in the Lord of the Rings franchise  –– thinks it’s well positioned to take advantage of Biden’s shift toward technology. “We’re excited to work with the administration to continue to scale these [towers],” said Matt Steckman, Anduril’s chief revenue officer.

Steckman would not say exactly how many sentry towers were currently in use in the area, but he did say that the company plans on having a large presence in the region soon though. Border Patrol Spokesperson Greg Davis said he didn’t know the exact number of towers in the region, but estimated there were just under a dozen in operation at the moment.

Unlike legacy surveillance equipment, Anduril’s towers run off of solar power and can be easily stationed in the remote areas of Big Bend. It’s also much easier for Border Patrol to convince private landowners to allow the towers on their property as there’s no construction involved in setting up the surveillance equipment, Steckman said.

According to Steckman, Jim White, who owns the Brite Ranch outside of Marfa, was the first private landowner to allow Anduril to test its new towers. White would not comment on the towers.

According to a federal government spending database, Anduril has contracts totaling over $61 million with U.S. Customs and Border Protection –– all for “prefabricated tower structures” and their attendant software systems.

The Department of Homeland Security –– the parent agency of Customs and Border Protection –– listed the construction of these “autonomous surveillance towers” as one of its top funding priorities for the 2021 fiscal year. DHS said it wanted, “$28.0 million to construct 30 additional Autonomous Surveillance Towers,” in its yearly budgeting brief. According to a press release from CBP, the agency has purchased 60 towers so far and plans on acquiring 140 more in the next couple of years.

Anduril’s towers have been operating for just under three years in eastern California. Steckman admitted that those crossing the border might be adapting to the towers’ presence already. “You’ll see sort of a spike that’ll sort of run for a few weeks and then you’ll see detections going down,” he said. “And you’ll see traffic sort of squirting to the east and west of the systems.”

Davis acknowledged the same problem. “The information gets back to the transnational criminal organizations south of the border and they know ‘well don’t send people right here because there’s a camera system,’” Davis said, adding, “They’re not permanent though. We can move them.”

The benefit, for Steckman, is that agents don’t have to manually monitor the cameras attached to the towers. “We’re trying to flip the current paradigm of people spending 80 percent of time looking at screens and trying to figure out what’s going on in the environment and 20 percent doing active work,” Steckman said. “You can deploy them as much as you want, and you won’t have to add staff.”

Jeffrey Hammes –– who is the president of the Border Patrol union for the Big Bend Sector –– said while he supports Anduril’s towers, he thinks the agency should strike a balance between funding new technology and hiring more personnel. “We can’t just rely on technology. We can’t just rely on boots on the ground. You have to have a mixed approach,” he said.

“The Big Bend Sector especially has been understaffed. And we’re dealing with levels of traffic that –– I’ve been here since 2009 –– I’ve never personally seen, Hammes said. “Anything that can help us do our job, we’re gonna support that.”