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Q&A on CBP’s “Integrated Fixed Towers” program
David Fisher of
Editor’s Note: Government Security News posed a series of questions related to CBP’s planned “Integrated Fixed Towers” (IFT) surveillance program. Here are some answers from Vumii Imaging Inc.
What are the most significant technical advances reflected in this program?
There really aren’t any significant core technical innovations reflected in the de-construction of the SBINet requirements implemented in IFT. Beyond a migration from thermal 320x240 pixel format sensors to the smaller pixel size and larger pixel format of 640x480, and even higher density sensors, the thermal imaging technology itself has not made significant technological strides. The limits of physics and limits in the manufacturability of very large optics have kept industry from pushing the envelope beyond minor increases in detection range. This coupled with an increased level of violence on the U.S. southern border ensures that the danger level of the dedicated agents assigned to it has not significantly improved.
All that being said, there are three advances that have become commonplace and will help CBP in this new border protection effort. First, the increased pixel density and smaller pixel size will provide some increase in the assessment ranges of the larger lens systems. Second, the implementation and improvement of algorithms that compensate for scintillation or atmospheric turbulence has the potential to improve image clarity and range for both visible, near-infrared and thermal sensors. Third, the prevalence of longer-life cryogenic coolers for the midwave cooled infrared systems will inevitably improve sensor reliability and reduce the total cost of ownership for CBP and ultimately the U.S. taxpayers.
A technology that is not totally new, but has historically been under-utilized, is near-infrared, illuminated imagery. The use of continuous wave laser energy to “light up” the scene has been fielded around the world for years. This tried-and-true technology provides a picture that is very near to the contrast of visible cameras at ranges beyond 2 miles. Thus, different from thermal imagery, these cameras produce video that can read text, see people’s faces, and even see through windshields or other glass. Overall magnification is much greater with near-infrared systems because the sensors used are CCDs with much smaller pixel sizes than thermal focal plane arrays. (4.3 micron versus 12 micron, for example) and glass optics are used for large focal length lenses versus germanium for thermal cameras. The importance of this is that agents with little additional training can see clearer images, more detail, and are able to correlate people to known identities. This affords early warning for agents to known violent offenders who they are about to encounter. Without this already-available technology, agents have to maintain a heightened state of vigilance that is wearing, stressful and, more often than not, unneeded.
What aspects of the Integrated Fixed Towers program needs further thinking by CBP?
Integrated Fixed Towers is still defined in a draft stage by CBP. With that in mind, the only range specification listed in the requirements is for 5-mile detection of people walking. There are many locations on both the southern and northern borders that are not suited to that range. Obstacles and terrain preclude seeing a line-of-sight of more than a couple of miles. Meanwhile, camera systems with very long focal length lenses to see anything useful at 5+ miles are very expensive to buy and maintain, and require substantial stabilization.
SBINet recognized this with a toolbox of sensors for short-, medium- and long-ranges. The SBINet approach allowed the selection and implementation of sensors that were tailor-made for their particular situation while still using off-the-shelf camera systems. The new IFT program seems to have dropped this approach.
What technical or operational contribution will your company offer to make to this program?
Easy-to-use and integrate illuminated, near-infrared imagery is available from Vumii Imaging Inc., of Atlanta, GA. With manufacturing of these systems in Tucson, AZ, there is a built-in logistics and repair facility with easy access to the southern border. These near-IR systems can be configured with or without an additional thermal imaging sensor. When included, the combination multi-sensor capability is the best of both imaging, and provides the most useful data to CBP.
What are the pros and cons of this particular approach to enhancing border security?
The biggest advantage of the technology is the ease with which border agents can use the imagery provided by illuminated, near-infrared cameras, which is unparalleled by its thermal cousin. The picture quality of near-IR imagery is very close to that provided by standard visible daytime cameras. Positive identification of faces is possible with near-IR, where it is not possible with either mid- or long-wave infrared.
The downside of the technology is that it is limited in range at night by the distance that the scene can be illuminated. Plus, these systems consume more electrical power because they are actively projecting energy. Longer-range NIR systems that use gated lasers are significantly more expensive than the continuous wave systems. Plus, they suffer from eye-safety complications, size and maintenance.