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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

Could we secure our borders using UAVs?

26 November, 2010
During the Global Security Challenge held at the University of London on 11 and 12 November, Managing Editor Andy Pye moderated a panel discussion on Robotics & Autonomous Systems entitled 'Could we secure our borders with UAVs?
The distinguished team of panelist comprised

* Dr Stefania Brown-Vanhoozer - Senior Research Fellow at US National Defense University (NDU), and leader for the Human Interoperability Program under the Center for Technology and National Security Policy;
* Laurent Pladys - founder of C-LVL, which is responsible for TOAD, (Tactical Organic Airborne Demonstrator), a low cost, optionally manned. rigged aerial platform offered as an alternative to more complex and expensive helicopters and UAVs for security, aerial observation and air transport;
* Dr Signe Redfield â€" the Associate Director for Autonomous Systems at the US Office of Naval Rsearch Global (ONRG) in London. She specialises in autonomous underwater vehicles;
* Matthew McCooe â€" Director Chart Venture Partners, focussing on investments in communications, sofrtware and robotics;
* Al Sisto â€" Venture Partner at Nauta Capital

Border security comes down to three essential elements:
1 - Observe what's going on
2 - Analyse the information and assess the threat
3 - Take action

Autonomous systems are theoretically capable of performing all three but their main strength is as a reconnaissance tool to fulfil task number 1 of observing what's going on.

The panel reviewed different types of border, from hostile to peaceful borders, and looked at the differences that arise from variations in terrain.

The term unmanned is regarded as something of a misnomer, in that extensive teams of analysts are often involved on the ground, analysing the data fed back from UAVs. Therefore, while they can save life in hostile areas, we are some way from them being the most-effective solution in non-hostile environments.

The panel outlined the techbnical limitations of current analytical capabilities and the venture capitalists outlined how to go about setting up suitable technology programmes which would attract US support and funding, most importantly identifying an American partner at the outset.

Borders can be long, tortuous and harsh so surveillance has always been an issue. Watch towers, guards and more recently camera systems are difficult to deploy in sufficient density to cover entire length of the border so it all has to be optimised in some way. The problem with optimisation is that the rules can change in a very short space of time so once the criminal element have figured out the 'low risk' areas, they exploit them thus making them high risk areas and hence the rules change.

A UAV/UAS is also an optimised solution because you can't have thousands of them buzzing over the entire border and you can't keep them in the air forever. The beauty of them is that they have the element of unpredictability and the rules can be changed instantaneously making border surveillance coverage less predictable.

Their use as a border protection tool has to be part of a wider approach. You still need long range visible light and thermal camera systems, you still need fencing and intruder detection and you still need guards for high risk and activity intensive areas but the UAV can be used for remote locations and low risk crossing points with random flight plans to confuse illegal immigrants etc.

Analysis is also something that causes significant headaches. Highly sensitive 'triggers' produce an unmanageable amount of false alarms and reducing the sensitivity also reduces the effectiveness of the analysis.

Environmental factors also play a significant role. If you were going to cross a border illegally, you wouldn't do it on a clear day in open territory with cameras pointing at you! You'd choose the most atrocious conditions where there are lots of things going on and plenty of cover - exactly the kind of environment that confuses sensors and analytics software. Incidentally, they're not the best conditions for a UAV to operate in either.

Analysis can be performed on the spot or at the 'server' or 'control room'. Modern camera systems have all their analytics capability on board and can feed the output to just about anywhere you want.... including a UAV. With GPS co-ordinates being part of the analytics feed, a UAV can be deployed based on confirmed alarm signals. Similarly, the camera systems installed in the UAV can be enabled with analytics capability so that some autonomous decision making can be done.

Taking action is also troublesome. People who cross borders illegally don't hang around to see what happens and they very quickly disappear from the camera's field of view. Some camera manufacturers have auxiliary tracking cameras equipped with Pan/Tilt/Zoom mechanisms which can be triggered by a confirmed alarm to keep the suspect within the field of view for a longer period..... it still won't be for very long though. This is where optimisation comes in again.

In summary, the panel agreed that UAVs have the potential to secure borders, but we are some way form the reality, and there is much opportunity for development, especially in the analystical sphere.

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