Project looks into whether drones could help with port security

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HOUSTON, Texas (Nexstar) — An Austin-based company and the Borders, Trade and Immigration (BTI) Institute at the University of Houston are partnering to study whether the use of unmanned autonomous systems in maritime port security can help detect radiation, human trafficking and drug smuggling cases. 

The BTI Institute is one of nine Centers of Excellence under the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate.   

“Port security covers a whole lot,” said Dr. Tony Ambler, director of the institute. “We’re talking about airport security, seaports or land ports. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on there, both with people identification to make sure the correct people are crossing the borders, to make sure there’s no contraband, customs efficiency, stopping things like dirty bombs coming in.” 

“If we can find ways to use technology to do greater levels and quicker levels of detection, that’s going to be of great benefit to the United States,” Ambler added. 

Lantern Unmanned Autonomous Systems, LLC is the company partnering with the institute. 

Ben Rohrbaugh, co-founder of company, served as the Director for Enforcement and Border Security at the National Security Council in the White House from 2014 to 2016. He also worked for the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and dealt with issues on customs and migration. 

“There are a number of different challenges that have been very vexing for government in cargo security for a long time,” he said. “One of them is human smuggling. We just don’t have a good handle on the number of people who are being moved in cargo containers. One of the most difficult and one that’s caused the most congressional angst has been radiation, where cargo containers are not checked for radiation until they physically arrive in the United States.” 

According to the Congressional Budget Office, “There was a 2007 congressional mandate requiring DHS to use both radiation detectors and imaging systems to scan and image all incoming seaborne containers before they are loaded onto a U.S.-bound ship.”

However, the deadline for implementation continues to be pushed back. 

“Drones, we believe, provide an opportunity to do outbound searching in foreign ports in a way that it’s not logistically a nightmare by actually allowing the drones to go to the containers instead of having to move containers to stationary equipment,” Rohrbaugh explained. 

This project’s goal is to develop and create software that allow for different drones and sensors to integrate, provide detection systems and send alerts as needed. The hope is to create a system in cargo security where drones can continuously scan containers while they’re at rest.  

“UAS can reach out to parts where human beings can’t get to at that particular point,” Ambler said. “For example, you might have a ship coming into the port or just docking and because you get the containers off the ship, they could be flying drones all around the containers to look and see if seals are being broken, if there are radiological sources on board and begin to look and see if there is human trafficking inside.” 

Right now, Lantern Unmanned Autonomous Systems and the BTI Institute are in its early stages of controlled testing.  

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