Published April 29, 2011
After spending $1 billion on a virtual border fence that it does not plan to complete, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is investing another $1.6 million to test video game technology to help improve its decisions on where to spend its border security funds.
In January, citing missed deadlines and cost overruns, the Obama administration scrapped the virtual border fence project, which was a system of sensors, radar, video and other technology as a way of spotting illegal immigrants crossing over.
Now, with funding from the DHS, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is exploring ways, through video game simulation, to make sure the same mistakes aren't made again -- and work out questions like how much fence and what kind of fence is needed or how sensors, vehicles and other technical equipment can best be used. The virtual games allow users to track people moving across the border, see how agents respond and control outcomes to apprehend suspects.
Users can also see how many suspects have been apprehended, what resources went into them, as well as the dollar amount spent.
"It's a lot more than a video game," said Mark Borkowksi, the assistant commissioner for Technology Acquisition and Innovation at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
"We were able to put together this tabletop where people could stand around and plan and think through scenarios and think about the issues and requirements and work off each other in a more collaborative way."
CBP sought input from potential contractors in modeling and simulation to help examine those decisions more than a year ago, and then awarded three contracts to produce prototype simulators. The CBP contractors -- Metron Inc., Breakaway Ltd., and Sandia National Laboratory -- each built a simulator for a different sector of the Southwest border.
Now officials are preparing an analysis to present to CBP operational units -- the Border Patrol, the Office of Field Operations, and the Office of Air and Marine -- within the next few weeks to gauge their interest in moving ahead with full-blown simulations, Borkowksi told FoxNews.com. The agency could use one or all three of the contractors with building out a simulation of all U.S. borders to include 2,000 miles of southern border, 4,000 miles of northern border, and even ocean borders, Borkowski said.
The Sandia Borders High Level Model (BHLM) combines a Sandia gaming platform called Ground Truth with its battle simulation tool known as Dante.
"This project really represents CBP being forward thinking about the technology they use and how they approach making decisions about the right technology and operations for border security," Jason Reinhardt, who served as the Sandia project manager, told FoxNews.com.
CBP was able to make use of that existing work and buy a border simulator of the area around El Paso, Texas, for only $800,000 of its own money. It delivered a proof of concept to CBP in early January. Still, Sandia's BHLM was the most expensive of the three simulators. The other two combined cost another $800,000, CBP reported.
"We want them to think strategically and think about where fences are best used, where video towers are best used, where helicopters are best used, and where all of the different capabilities can come together," she commented.
CBP contractor Metron did not return a request for comment. But Breakaway CEO Douglas Whatley told FoxNews.com that his company's solution allows CBP and other clients to experiment with various scenarios and technology for a lot of different operations. "BreakAway's modeling and simulation platform can cover areas ranging up to several thousand square kilometers, based on available data and customer needs. Live training events can be time consuming and costly and it can be difficult to create all the scenarios you can easily accomplish through virtual simulation," Whatley said in a statement.
Not everyone may agree that spending money on modeling and simulation is the best use of limited DHS funds, however. The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), CBP's union, recently called for more staffing at the agency in a recommendation to Congress.
"NTEU believes there is no way you can speed up the inspection process in which CBP Officers are currently conducting primary inspections in 30 to 40 seconds without increasing staffing," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley in a statement this month. The union called for CBP to restore $20 million in funding for staff overtime.