Sensors Mag

Seeking Border Patrol Sensors

March 29, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors

An article posted Monday at alleges that sensor vendors have been promising border-protection systems to the military for more than 40 years and have yet to deliver anything accurate and rugged enough to work.

An article posted Monday at alleges that sensor vendors have been promising border-protection systems to the military for more than 40 years and have yet to deliver anything accurate and rugged enough to work. But, the article says, "while no one was looking, electronic detection systems have become a lot more capable than they were in the 1960s."

I read the article because the headline, "Smart Sensors Seek Suicide Bombers," caught my attention, and the first two sentences promised information about Israel's use of sensor systems to guard its borders. The article did not satisfy my interest, but it did pique my ire.

Where Shall I Begin?

I'll begin here: "while no one was looking." Huh? Anyone who has cared to watch has seen the dramatic changes—even in half that time, since Sensors was launched in 1984. And we're not the only ones who have been reporting on the technology. Four years ago posted an article detailing the technologies that various countries have been using to help monitor their borders.

The one thing I know the article got right is this: "The new generation of sensors increase effectiveness with the sheer number of different devices that can be deployed." That's absolutely true; we've certainly seen a trend in recent years to include multiple sensing capabilities in one package. The article mentions "video and acoustic (microphones), seismic (earth vibrations), and heat sensors," specifically.

But I beg to differ with the assertion that they are "all small, and hard to spot." While futurists envision self-powered wireless microsensors, sprinkled like sand for whatever purpose is needed, we're not there yet. Current technology isn't so invisible. People must be clever about placing the devices, which may or may not be hard to spot, depending on where and how they are deployed, and the astuteness of would-be infiltrators.

I also take issue with the assertion that "the addition of microprocessors and software that enable the devices to, well, 'think.'" Maybe this comes from hanging around Melanie Martella, but I want to go on record as saying things don't think. Not yet anyway. The label "smart sensors," is hyperbole. Yes, we can program machines to take certain actions given certain sets of circumstances, and yes, we are indeed marching toward the day when artificial intelligence software enables complex decision making. But thinking is not yet in the repertoire of things.

And while it may be true that, "anyone or anything trying to get past such an array of sensors will have a very difficult time," according to my sources the category 'anyone and anything' currently includes animals and falling trees-so false alarms are plentiful. We've still got a ways to go in developing the technology.

Not So Secret

"Similar systems are sold to commercial users, but because of the need for secrecy (to prevent criminals or terrorists from obtaining information helpful in getting past the systems), little is publicly known about many of these systems," the article says. Apparently the writer has never been to the Sensors site, and has never looked up spec sheets made available by vendors.

OK, enough kvetching. I'll end on an agreeable note, and once again I'll quote the article. "The military versions are even more shielded from public scrutiny, as these are used to guard things like nuclear weapons and top-secret projects," it says. Indeed, the military does keep its best technology under wraps. There's more we want to report in Sensors than we can. Just like there's more I want to know more about Israel's new border patrol sensors than I do.

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