CBP to use mobile app to detect illegal border crossings

Image Source:  U.S. CBP

Image Source: U.S. CBP

What is ATAK?

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is now evaluating the use a mobile app on Android called Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK or Team Awareness Kit), a GPS communications tool that gives a real-time view of the area of operation, for their frontline personnel.

The app, which was developed by the Air Force for the U.S. Special Operations Command, delivers topography, personnel locations, distances, and mapping gleaned from multiple sensors to law enforcement and first responders. With just a glance at their handheld screens, agents can visualize their surroundings. This new situational awareness capability includes Blue Force Tracking to see where team members are (which reduces friendly fire incidents and helps with coordinating movements), Red Force Tracking to see where the bad guys are (obvious advantages), as well as terrain, weather, and other topographical elements.

Additionally, the app enables multiple types of encrypted data communication such as text and file sharing (including photos and video). These communications can be set for user-to-user, user-to-select teams, user-to-command post or user-to-entire force (even if they are from different agencies). This level of integrated communications was unavailable before ATAK.

Using the app is “the difference between getting directions over the phone or through Google Earth,” according to Assistant Chief Chris Pietrzak, the deputy program manager for the DHS Science & Technology’s Apex Border Situational Awareness Program. He says the technology is part of a “smart border” goal where “people get the right information at the right time.

The application is one of several initiatives under the Apex umbrella and it’s now being evaluated by both special operations and operational units in Tucson, Arizona. The product was recently used to support communications and coordination among the first responders to Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

How is ATAK used to detect illegal border crossings?

During its March 22 demonstration in CBP’s Chula Vista Station in San Diego, participants used the app to receive data from ground sensors, radar tracks, and an aircraft in a simulated cross-border smuggling scenario. The app allowed responding agents, CBP personnel at tactical operations centers and CBP leadership in Washington D.C., including Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, to follow the events as they happened.

The exercise involved tracking agents acting as unauthorized border crossers who just slipped through the border after being detected by sensors mounted on a Border Patrol surveillance truck. Their movement immediately showed on the smartphones of the agents monitoring the area.

As the border crossers continued north, they set off other sensors and the data was automatically shared. Then a small drone (quadcopter), was launched to visually identify the intruders and their location for the apprehension. “Nobody has to talk about it,” said Assistant Chief John Mennell, a member of both the DHS and application development teams. “They see the sensor hits going off.”

The utility of ATAK to provide tactical situational awareness was identified thru interactions between the Department of Defense (DoD) and personnel from federal agencies to include units within DHS. This has led to a grass-roots adoption of ATAK in small pockets of DHS but has not translated into broader enterprise adoption strategy…at least until now.

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