Want to Know How to Build a Virtual Fence? Ask Border Patrol
National Defense Magazine (2008-05) Stew Magnuson
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Designers of the Project 28 pilot program, which was envisioned as a virtual fence along the Southwest border, failed to ask users what they wanted in the system, according to the Government Accountability Office.
After an eight-month delay, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems turned the system over to Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol in February.
In late 2006, the Department of Homeland Security awarded Boeing a $20.6 million contract to set up a series of cameras mounted on towers, unattended ground sensors and a common operating picture that would be transmitted to Border Patrol headquarters and agents in their vehicles. The project is part of the Secure Border Initiative.
“Both SBInet and Border Patrol officials reported that Project 28 was initially designed and developed by Boeing with limited input from the Border Patrol,” said a GAO report looking at lessons learned.
One example is the styluses agents were given to call up information on the screens mounted inside their vehicles. Touch-screen technology would have been better since agents don’t want to handle a stylus as they drive down roads in pursuit of smugglers and illegal migrants.
Nevertheless, the technology is better than what they had before, agents told GAO.
Another takeaway lesson from the project, one that the Defense Department has learned during the past few years, but had escaped DHS, is that the terms “commercial off the shelf” and “plug and play” look good on paper, but integrating sensors and software systems is seldom easy.
Assistant CBP Commissioner Jay Ahern, in testimony given to the House Homeland Security Committee, said “commercial-off-the-shelf components, even proven technologies, cannot be integrated ‘right out of the box’ in the field without interface design, thorough testing, and integration in the laboratory.”
That will change as the department makes a second try at creating a virtual fence on the Southwest border, he said. The new deadline to expand the project to the rest of the southwest border is 2011. DHS has indicated that it will not be transferring and expanding the Project 28 system to other border areas.
Ahern also said Boeing will credit $2.2 million of the $20.6 million fee back to DHS to compensate for the delays.
Despite the delay, Boeing still remains the primary beneficiary of DHS’ border contracts. CBP has awarded more than $1.1 billion in additional SBInet task orders to the company since 2006. CBP officials also said last year Boeing would receive the $20 million contract to set up a similar demonstration project on the northern border near Detroit.
A Boeing spokesperson said the company is not permitted by DHS to comment on the program.