Border Patrol’s Newest Tool? VADER On A Drone

Capable of sensing people over a large area, this radar can find and track people hiding in the desert.
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A military sensor with a movie villain name is helping law enforcement agents nab people trying to enter the United States illegally.

The frighteningly named VADER, for “Vehicle And Dismount Exploitation Radar” was first put to use tracking insurgents over a wide area in Afghanistan. With the war winding down, VADER has come home, joined the border patrol, hooked up with a Predator drone, and gone looking for people illegally crossing the United States-Mexico border.

What VADER found was remarkable. Over a three-month stretch, VADER helped “find and detain 1,874 people in the Sonora Desert.” The radar detected an additional 1,962 people that Border Patrol couldn’t catch. While earlier congressional investigative estimates had put the border patrol’s success rate at 64 percent, VADER reveals that the total number of crossings is much greater (and therefore the success rate actually lower).

There are limitations to this–in an area full of cars or people, VADER’s powers of detection are overwhelmed by the ease with which potential suspects can blend into the surroundings. That means that VADER is probably useless in most cities, towns, and popular border crossings. (Which is fine, because those places already have people on the ground who can do the job better.) For wide swaths of empty desert, like Southern Arizona where VADER was tested, the radar’s sensors work very well.

Border Patrol is so impressed by the technology that officials are requesting two more VADERs. In addition to assisting in patrol work, VADER will serve a broader purpose: providing a more complete picture of border crossings. Better data could help Congress make more informed decisions about immigration policy (though I wouldn’t hold your breath).