WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has awarded a major border security contract to a California technology start-up that will use artificial intelligence, pairing the president’s giant steel barrier with the kind of “virtual wall” long favored by Democrats to prevent illegal crossings from Mexico. The five-year agreement between Customs and Border Protection and Anduril Industries calls for the company to deploy hundreds of solar-powered mobile surveillance towers designed to operate in rugged locations. With cameras and thermal imaging, they detect moving objects and feed an artificial intelligence system capable of distinguishing among animals, humans and vehicles, sending location and mapping information right to the cellphones of U.S. patrol agents. In their opposition to Trump’s physical border barrier, many Democrats have promoted “smart” border technology as a more effective and cheaper alternative to the $15 billion concrete-and-steel version. The agency’s contract announced Thursday designates the Anduril system as a “program of record,” meaning a technology so essential it will be a dedicated item in the Homeland Security budget. While it does not specify a dollar amount, Anduril executives said the agreement is worth several hundred million dollars. They said in a statement Thursday morning that it plans to deploy 200 “Autonomous Surveillance Towers” by 2022. It says agents can set up the systems at a location along the border in just two hours.
“These towers give agents in the field a significant leg up against the criminal networks that facilitate illegal cross-border activity,” Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott said in the statement, which does not mention Anduril by name. “The more our agents know about what they encounter in the field, the more safely and effectively they can respond,” Scott said. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has criticized Trump’s border wall plans and said he will not spend money on physical barriers. If elected, he will face intense pressure to repudiate Trump’s signature project and bring the bulldozers and excavators to a halt. Anduril’s contract leaves the company in a position to benefit regardless of the outcome in November, with an artificial intelligence system that could reinforce the president’s physical wall or develop into the kind of virtual wall Democrats have said they prefer. “No matter where we go as a country, we’re going to need to have situational awareness on the border,” Matthew Steckman, Anduril’s chief revenue officer, said in an interview. “No matter if talking to a Democrat or a Republican, they agree that this type of system is needed.”
The deal with the agency allows Anduril to showcase its artificial intelligence system, Lattice, as an all-seeing shield that can protect U.S. military bases and other strategic sites. Anduril also has developed aerial drones that can be deployed to feed the Lattice system, but the company said it is not planning to use that equipment for its contract with the agency, and will rely instead on the tower-mounted mobile cameras. Border security experts and Anduril executives say the Lattice system is a breakthrough in border technology, because the company claims the artificial intelligence software is capable of distinguishing between an animal and a human with 97% accuracy, reducing the number of times agents respond to sensors triggered by cattle, deer, peccary and other large mammals wandering the borderlands. The system does not use facial recognition or other personal identification technology, minimizing the privacy concerns typically associated with the deployment of powerful government surveillance equipment across large open spaces. It is designed primarily for use in remote border regions with few people, not urban areas with more crossings, to provide agents with what the company calls “wide area understanding.”
Information for this article was contributed by Aaron Gregg of The Washington Post.