DHS Uses Wartime Mega-Camera to Watch Border
By Spencer Ackerman
April 2, 2012
The Department of Homeland Security wants to mount a powerful camera on a Raven Aerostar blimp like this to spy on miles of border at once. Photo: Raven
One legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has arrived on the southern border of the United States. The Department of Homeland Security recently completed tests of a powerful camera, one that cut its teeth in the war zones, that captures video of entire miles of border in a single frame. DHS thinks mega-cameras on blimps and aerostats might be the future of border security — if its analysts can only keep up with the glut of data they’ll gather.
The system itself, a wide-area surveillance camera suite known as Kestrel, earned its stripes during the wars. That got DHS interested. “You had this imager flying that was able to archive and save imagery and reconstruct [bomb] emplacement so troops could go after [insurgents] later,” John Applebee, who manages the border camera program for DHS, tells Danger Room. “It also was used for other things every day, like troop protection or perimeter protection, just as we imagine its uses along the continental borders of the United States.”
So for a week of tests, the department mounted Logos Technologies’ Kestrel imager on a 75-foot long Raven Aerostar aerostat tethered 2000 feet above the Arizona desert. DHS reports in a statement that Kestrel helped spot “more than 100 illegal attempted entries and alleged illicit activities in progress.”
“We can see miles from this with a single image frame,” Applebee enthuses. “Within every pixel, you have high-resolution, good, detailed resolution, like high-d-caliber imagery. In every frame, across the frame.”
This is hardly the first time that wartime surveillance technology has made its way home from the battlefield. DHS flies unarmed drones above the northern and southern U.S. borders, snapping pictures. (They carry an “excellent camera system,” Applebee allows, but unlike Kestrel, “you need to know where to point it.”) Police departments nationwide have started using smaller spy drones as well. Earlier this year, DHS expressed interest in camera systems that can spy on four square miles at once, well within the range of the military’s new mega-cameras. Kestrel’s 360-degree camera suite is a step in that direction.
But the migration of those military tools comes the migration of some of the military’s problems. Specifically: the “persistent” video taken by the powerful cameras creates a fire hose of data that analysts struggle to interpret.
And if the glut of video overwhelms the military, DHS — whose annual budget is under $60 billion, an order of magnitude less than the Pentagon’s — is in deep trouble. Applebee is up front about it. “They have the people,” he says. “We do not.”
The answer, he hopes, will come from software. “We’re looking closely at the developments in the military and intelligence communities for ways the software and analysis can be automated, so can we use software tools as a tripwire to signal us and call agent to attention once [the camera observes] a movement has occurred in a given region,” Applebee says. Darpa, the Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers, for instance, are interested in something akin to a “thinking camera” that pre-sorts imagery according to an algorithm based on what an analyst hopes to find.
And perhaps after those pre-selecting imagery tools come online for the military, it won’t take long before civilian law enforcement puts them to use. Applebee certainly hopes so. He sees the wide-eyed Kestrel as a huge help for “securing large areas from illegal intrusion.” Imagine what the next generation of cameras will let him see.
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