The U.S. Border Patrol is experimenting with robots to explore smuggler's tunnels in the southwest.
Even at a time when threats, potential threats and imagined threats are becoming ever more high tech, one of the lowest-tech methods of sneaking people and contraband into the U.S. is one of the thorniest problems facing the U.S. Border Patrol.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 30 smugglers’ tunnels have been located and shut down near San Diego – whose position right on the Mexican border has made it a hotspot for both cross-border industrial projects and illegal smuggling of workers and drugs.
Since 2006, when Congress passed the Secure Border Fence Act, which launched a series of projects to build real and virtual fences along 700 miles of porous border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, border patrollers have found more than 30 tunnels.
In at least a few cases, they’re now getting a little robot help to explore those tunnels without sending in agents who could be hurt by noxious chemicals, violent smugglers, or boobytraps.
In December 2008, roboticists from the Idaho National Laboratory took a Foster-Miller Talon robot equipped with laser-vision systems, video and chemical sensors to a tunnel Border Patrol agents discovered during the 1990s in Arizona.
The tunnel proved too deep and long to be explored safely at the time, so Border Patrol agents flooded it and kept an eye on it to make sure it wasn’t being reopened.
After hearing about the INL’s success in another trial, Border Patrol agents asked them to come down to Arizona for a look.
INL roboticists dropped the Talon through a grate in the floor of an old warehouse that concealed the U.S. end of the tunnel, and set it loose 10 feet below ground in what turned out to be a staging area for the tunnel proper, which was 50 feet below the surface.
Unlike the almost-unmodified oil-pipeline inspectors Canadian border security uses for some tunnels, the Talon provides enough autonomy that it can continue exploring even when the remote connection to its operators is cut off by, say, 50 feet of dirt and rock.
It was able to explore and map the tunnel, and bring its results back to operators in the aging warehouse.
INL is a Department of Energy facility whose charter is to develop new technologies to make energy production, conservation and control safer and more effective. Since Sept. 11, 2001, that mission has included beefing up the DoE’s capabilities in security and defense of power plants and various bits of energy-distributing infrastructure.
INL roboticists have been working for more than 10 years to expand the capabilities of the type of robots sent into pipelines or areas of nuclear power plants that are too dangerous to send humans very often. Once they made the connection with smuggler tunnels, however, the project’s goals expanded.
The key piece of technology, according to INL roboticist David Bruemmer, is the Robotic Intelligence Kernel – a piece of command-and-control software that can operate on several types of robots.
In a trial two months earlier the team had been able to explore a 600-meter-long tunnel under the grounds of Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina using an iRobot PackBot running the Robotic Intelligence Kernel.
The successful test came at the request of the Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), which passed its results along to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials who, in turn, asked for the INL’s robotic help with the Arizona tunnel.
Neither trial was in a live law enforcement situation, and neither was conclusive. They both are indications that robots are becoming more common in law enforcement and emergency response situations, doing jobs humans would rather not.