Everywhere i traveled along the Rio Grande, when I asked questions about the different devices being used on the border, my companions invoked the name Borkowski—as in, “You’d better ask Borkowski about that.” They were talking about Mark Borkowski, CBP’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. All the most advanced equipment, and all the new contracts, flowed through him. So I went to the source, to Washington, D.C. I had many questions. The week before I arrived, Borkowski had testified before Congress about the failure of SBInet, the infamous virtual fence, so I asked him to elaborate. In long, well-punctuated paragraphs, he told me the story of the program’s genesis and its fall.
In his view, the original sin of SBInet was a pervasive naiveté—among the general public, the media and the government—about the ability of technology to solve a vexing political problem. In the years after 9/11, when the border began to be regarded with a new sense of urgency, there was a strong feeling that something dramatic needed to be done and that technology, which everyone agreed was a good thing, would somehow provide an answer. Unfortunately, Borkowski told me, no one had a clear theory of what exactly technology was supposed to accomplish. That rush to find a universal technological solution contributed to the failure of SBInet, which was plagued from the very beginning by cost overruns, delays and poor design on the part of Boeing and bad program management on the part of Homeland Security. Looking forward, the immediate goal was to find specific technological solutions that fit the particular challenges of different stretches of the border. Policy changes, such as comprehensive immigration reform—which, Borkowski hastened to point out, was not the same thing as amnesty—could make a huge difference as well. If Congress would create a rational and orderly system to match immigrants with jobs in a legal manner, and if the laws against hiring undocumented aliens were consistently enforced, “that would cut off a lot of the traffic between the points of entry. In fact, at a certain point, you would only have the really bad people left, the drug smugglers and the terrorists.”
At that point, though, technology would continue to play a major role. Indeed, it would most likely be every bit as transformative for border operations as air power was in military affairs. Borkowski singled out the domestic use of unmanned aerial systems as having the most potential for radical operational change. SBInet might have failed, but the idea behind it was sound: watching as much of the border as possible, all the time. A drone has a different, but complementary, mission: targeted surveillance. “A UAV can get somewhere fast, and can stay there,” he said—far longer than a conventional aircraft—“but it looks through a soda straw. Different purpose. Different mission.”
Leaning forward on his desk, Borkowski was quick to credit his fellow assistant commissioner Michael Kostelnik, the retired Air Force general who runs OAM, for pushing the deployment of drones along the border and elsewhere. OAM has been operating Predators in domestic airspace for six years now and is using them in many situations that have little or nothing to do with border security, notably in disaster-recovery missions after hurricanes, fires and floods, but also in what Kostelnik (at a border summit I later attended in El Paso) called “pop up” missions responding to contingent homeland-security situations. For routine border missions, OAM operates its unmanned aircraft with a certificate of authorization from the FAA that permits it to fly them over the entire southwestern border, as well as the Gulf Coast as far east as New Orleans and the northern border from Spokane, Washington, to the western end of the Great Lakes. The agency also has transit certificates that allow it to fly drones across the country from one area of operations to another.
The FAA will not yet permit OAM drones to fly over large metropolitan areas on a routine basis, but Kostelnik said his agency can now secure an emergency authorization and within a day put a Predator drone in the sky anywhere in the country.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.