A ‘virtual wall’ using high-tech drones would solve Trump’s biggest challenge

Sample imagery captured from a high-tech drone camera. Ninox Robotics

As US Army General Patton famously said, “fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man”. It is 2019 and there are smarter, better, cheaper ways of solving a difficult problem like securing the US-Mexico border.

Cutting-edge, long-range endurance drones could be deployed continuously to create a virtual “wall” of surveillance along the border, with an annual cost of around $US50m.

Walls don’t have eyes, they are difficult to manoeuvre and are very hard to upgrade, not to mention the exorbitant cost to build and maintain. And in the case of the US-Mexico border, a wall also requires significant appropriation of private land.

Drones, however, can cover large areas, are extremely hard to spot, impossible to tunnel under and even harder to jump over. But most importantly, they are incredibly effective surveillance tools.

To make the “virtual” wall a reality, around a dozen UAV (or drone) systems could be established at multiple points along the approximately 2,000 mile border, with each system continuously flying operations and live streaming high-resolution thermal imagery back to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. Using this advanced camera technology, the drones would be able to spot humans approaching the US-Mexico border in real-time, both day and night.

If a drone spots a person or group of interest threatening to cross the border, it can circle around the target and maintain visual contact while live feeding the exact GPS coordinates to CBP officers, who can then mobilise to apprehend the party. The drone’s camera is also able to spot people approaching the border some miles before they arrive.

Marcus Ehrlich with one of his drone units. Ninox Robotics

Like the US, Australia is a large territory with expansive and varied terrain. Due to this size and remoteness, military-grade drones are being put to use across the country by civilian companies on behalf of government agencies, in areas like emergency services, compliance and security where the ability to locate individuals in difficult and remote terrain, night and day, is proving invaluable.

Drones can cost effectively and safely track and monitor everything from feral animals to bushfires to billion dollar infrastructure. The maturity of drone technology has led to the continual and beneficial process of the removal of humans from work that is dirty, dumb and dangerous, like the task of patrolling a porous border (wall or no wall).

The US-Mexico border is long and situated in terrain that is often remote, which makes it a prime domain for the deployment of this technology. There are, however, still substantial sections of dense air traffic along the border. As such, one of the biggest challenges for creating this surveillance wall would be integrating safely into air space. Fortunately, there are now private drone companies and state agencies that have built excellent track records in air safety management and operations, integration of latest air traffic management technologies, (such as on board transponders), and importantly, experience working hand in hand with domestic aviation regulators to ensure drone operations are conducted safely.

While US Customs and Border Protection may have access to its own drone capability, the systems are very large and hugely expensive platforms not primarily designed for surveillance but rather for the delivery of weaponry in distant war zones. A dedicated fleet of cheaper but highly effective surveillance drones with easy deployability, high levels of redundancy and a focused mission can ensure the types of consistent monitoring that has so far been lacking on the border or has been prohibitive financially and practically. This level of surveillance would surely act as a significant deterrent to anyone looking to find another way into the US.

So, while President Trump’s stand-off with the Democratic party and even sections of his own party around the creation of a border wall could drag on for months if not years, there is a solution to the problem that could potentially be enacted within a very short space of time. A solution that would not only be more effective but would cost American taxpayers a mere 1% per year of the total estimated build cost of a physical structure ($US5.7 billion) and would capture the entire border in its remit.

A green light for drones to set off along the US-Mexico border would address Trump’s immediate fears about illegal immigration and allay opposition concerns relating to cost, impracticality and redundancy. I’d call that a win-win.

Marcus Ehrlich is the Managing Director of Ninox Robotics.