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Firms adapt wartime sensors for new markets

Oct. 3, 2013 - 01:52PM   |  
By BEN IANNOTTA   |   Comments
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Wide-area camera builders are up against sticker shock in their attempts to market their wartime products for new roles in border and maritime surveillance.

Two wide-area sensor builders — ITT Exelis and Logos Technologies — are now spending internal research dollars to come up with alternative camera designs that they promise will be smaller and more affordable.

In Afghanistan, the wide-area airborne surveillance, or WAAS, cameras are carried on traditionally piloted planes, unmanned aircraft, or slung under aerostats. They snap city-sized pictures of the terrain several times a second to map the movements of vehicles and in some cases people.

The Department of Homeland Security likes the idea of transitioning the WAAS technology to the problem of illegal immigration and trafficking along the U.S. border with Mexico. In theory, they would fly on aerostats or be installed on one or more of DHS’s Predator B unmanned planes flown out of March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., home to Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations Center. The Predator Bs are the same airframe design as the Air Force Reaper UAVs that carry WAAS cameras in Afghanistan.

The problem is the cost.

“What we found on the wide-area surveillance DoD stuff is that the price point is just too high,” a senior DHS official said.

Even if DHS wanted to invest in WAAS technology, Congress is more interested in maximizing the number of agents in the field than in buying new technologies.

“We’re not allowed to make that trade,” the senior official said. “What makes the headlines is, ‘How many border patrol agents have you deployed?’Ÿ”

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

The contractors aren’t giving up, however.

Some are lobbying Congress to add wide-area surveillance to the country’s strategic plan for border security. As for the cost issue, Exelis and Logos plan to unveil what they promise will be lower-cost versions sometime in 2014.

In the near-term, the best chance for homeland business might belong to Exelis and Sierra Nevada Corp. They are under contract with DHS to conduct a week-long operational demonstration later this year for Customs and Border Protection. Using a manned plane, they plan to show off Vigilant Stare, a version of the Gorgon Stare system flown in Afghanistan on Air Force Reapers.

Vigilant Stare’s sensor is identical to the Gorgon Stare sensor in terms of size and performance, but onboard processing and distribution improvements by Sierra Nevada are meant to give DHS more bang for the buck. Motion imagery — the term for wide-area still images shot several times a second — will be sent over WiMax commercial links to agents equipped with iPads.

It’s a long shot that DHS and CBP would buy the system, so Exelis has invested several million internal research-and-development dollars on the next generation version and plans to continue investing next year.

“I would love it if people said, ‘We want to buy the exact same thing as you built on Gorgon Stare,’” said S. Danny Rajan, director of emerging/airborne solutions for Exelis’ Geospatial Systems group. “Unfortunately, that’s not what the market needs — the market needs something that’s different.”

Logos has already demonstrated its technology to CBP. In March 2012, Logos flew its Kestrel aerostat WAAS system for border security agents. CBP was reportedly impressed, but nothing has happened since.

Frank Purdy, the Logos vice president of corporate engagement, said the aerostats could be positioned to look down continuously on trafficking hotspots, while the Predator Bs would patrol the balance of the border.

The problem with the Predator Bs, Purdy said, is that they’re not flown continuously for 24/7 persistence. “They get lucky seeing people sometimes,” he said.

In addition to cueing agents for real-time interdictions, a WAAS system stores troves of motion imagery. Those recordings can be analyzed forensically, which would help Congress and CBP figure out how many illegal immigrants or traffickers are getting through.

“This system would give you the knowledge necessary to do more than assume the metrics are accurate,” Purdy said.

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