Recon Balloon That Could Aid Border Patrols Is Put in a Holding Pattern

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Nearly three years ago, at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, an Arizona-based technology company conducted a demonstration of a communications balloon that could exponentially increase the ability of Border Patrol agents to monitor America's southern border.

The balloon, made by Chandler, Ariz.-based Space Data Corp., carries a lightweight communications payload 60,000 to 100,000 feet above the earth, and can extend the range of two-way radios on the ground as much as 40-fold. Small, easy to transport and simple to deploy, Space Data’s balloons are far more cost-effective than comparable satellite technology, and they are already being used by the Air Force and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along the Mexican border, the balloons could greatly improve monitoring and communications between border patrol and law enforcement officials on the ground, especially in the deep canyons and mountain ranges where illegal immigrants routinely travel.

“The whole purpose of the demonstration was to have border agents traveling to areas where they typically don’t have communications and can’t see because of the terrain,” said Jerry Quenneville, Space Data’s vice president of business development.

Quenneville said the Border Patrol agents at the demonstration gave Space Data's device an overwhelmingly positive response.

And then nothing happened.

Border Patrol, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t pursue a contract with the company.

“We sort of sat by the phone wondering, ‘What’s the next step?’” Quenneville said. “In the end, we were left with nobody pushing to get that sort of capability. The Border Patrol said it didn’t have the specific requirement in its budget for a balloon-borne platform.”

Quenneville suspects the lack of follow-up had to do more with the fact that Space Data’s technology is very different from the tools currently being used by the Border Patrol. The company has contracts with the Air Force and Marines, as well as deals under consideration with the other branches of the military and several other countries.

Space Data's platforms also are used by a variety of industries for a range of applications, including pipeline monitoring, fleet vehicle tracking, remote data transmission and emergency communications. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the company testified before Congress on how its technology could be implemented in a disaster scenario.

But for now, its technology will not be deployed to address what many say is a national security disaster unfolding on the U.S. border with Mexico. After nearly three years of back-and-forth with the Border Patrol, Space Data’s connection with the agency has fallen by the wayside, despite its continued contracts with the military.

“We have no real relationship with Border Patrol at this point,” Quenneville said. “We have the occasional meeting with DHS.”

Repeated calls to DHS seeking a comment were not returned.

“Any kind of contract that is considered has to be decided upon by headquarters, because that's where the funds come from,” says Rob Daniels, an Arizona-based spokesman for the Border Patrol.

The Border Patrol representative with specific knowledge of the 2007 Space Data demonstration could not be reached for comment. Homeland Security's no-decision is a disappointment to Space Data, especially in light of media reports over the great challenges of apprehending illegal immigrants in remote areas along the border.

“With our technology, we could fill in the dead spots and it would no longer be an issue,” says Jerry Knoblach, the company's CEO. As agents in the field note, effective border enforcement inevitably brushes up against technological limits.

“Communications is always a problem. It doesn’t matter where you are,” says Mark Qualia, spokesman for United States Border Patrol. “The communications systems that we have work well, but at the same time, we’re looking to improve that communication.”

Space Data’s communications platform weighs only 6 pounds and acts like a cell phone tower, “repeating” voice or data signals to extend the coverage pattern on the ground. The hydrogen-filled balloon can maintain a controlled altitude over a specific area for roughly 24 hours by venting gas before it eventually bursts in the upper atmosphere. The electronics payload, which is about the size of a shoe box, drifts back to the ground on small parachutes, and it is then retrieved and reused.

“It’s all about getting a communications platform up to a high vantage point so that we can either extend the range of communications great distances or so that we can position our platforms to look down into deep canyons and valleys and mountain ranges,” Knoblach says.

Experts agree that casting a spotlight on new technology may relieve some of the political pressure in the national debate over illegal immigration, especially in Arizona, where the recent killing of rancher Robert Krentz drew national attention to the problem of violence in remote areas near the border.

“Border patrol is a very hard job because of the size of our border with Mexico and because it’s a sensitive political issue,” says Jeffrey M. Jones, a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. “What’s happening in Arizona is heightening the tensions, so we’ve got to look at alternatives. We’ve got to look at technology that allows us to cast a wider net.”

“If the focus were on the people who are crossing the border at that moment, you’re going to avoid a lot of the issues of personal liberties,” Jones explains, referring to the recently enacted law in Arizona that requires police to request proof of citizenship from people they suspect are in the country illegally.