A group of federal regulators held a meeting in Menlo Park, Calif., asking for help in monitoring the country's southern border with drones.
Last week, technology entrepreneurs filled a Menlo Park conference room, where officials spelled out their needs — drones small and light enough to launch easily and fly over vast stretches of desert. The machines would look for questionable activity, scan faces of suspects and compare them against a database for prior criminal history.
Drones already operate along the border. Eight large Predator drones, each with a 66-foot wingspan, help agents with monitoring. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, told a Syracuse newspaper in April that he wanted to expand the use of drones at the border, in addition to the wall he wants to build.
“There can be questions about how accurate that is and legitimate questions about how someone’s picture got into a database,” said John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project.
Ari Schuler, a director of analytics integration for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said before any such technology is rolled out in the drones, it will be compliant with policy and law and there will be discussions with the agency’s privacy and civil rights offices. Chris Pietrzak, another Customs and Border Protection official, said that the department would test the technology using “synthetic data sets.”
If startups match what federal officials are seeking, they could receive $50,000 to $200,000 for each milestone. That’s much less than what a venture capitalist would offer. But in their presentation last week, officials touted how companies could test their drones on the department’s large network of airfields to see how they work in real life.
“We want to help you,” Schuler said. “We will test the heck out of your stuff. We want to tell other people about it.”
In the past, some companies may have waited 9 to 12 months to get a contract with the government, according to Melissa Ho, who works out of the DHS’ San Jose office, which opened last year. Now under a new innovation program, startups can get a contract in roughly 30 days after Ho’s team evaluates the applications.
One entrepreneur said a border patrol representative was asking for a long list of capabilities for the drones and wished the agency had ranked what aspects were most important.
“You might as well ask for the Starship Enterprise as for all the things he wanted,” said George Inskeep, director of operations for Drone-Aviation LLC, a Sonoma company that operates drones for aerial imagery, referring to a border patrol officer’s presentation. Inskeep’s three-person firm is still evaluating whether to apply for funding.
Border patrol agents face challenges every day. They protect 5,525 miles of border with Canada and 1,989 with Mexico, pushing through tall brush in Texas and coping with extreme heat in Arizona. They carry a lot of weight, with body armor alone weighing ten pounds — hence the desire for lightweight drones.
The agency is understaffed, said Troy Mestler, CEO of Skyfront, a Menlo Park drone development company who attended last week’s event. “They are basically looking for drones as a force multiplier,” he said. “If there is something happening beyond their line of sight, drones are a great opportunity to take off from the border patrol agent, fly over a mountain and survey a particular piece of land for illegal activities.”
So far, DHS has selected companies for the first phase in a project aimed to strengthen and protect domains for Internet-connected devices, making awards to five of the 45 firms that applied.
Inskeep said the chances of landing funding seem like pretty good odds.
“We’re a startup, and all startups need money,” he said, adding that even though it’s not a lot of money, it’s still “bootstrap money that keeps the wheels turning.”
Drones are expected to grow into a market generating more than $82 billion and creating more than 100,000 jobs in the next decade, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which cited industry estimates. This month, new safety rules on drones less than 55 pounds will start, letting operators fly their aircraft up to 400 feet above ground level, allowing them more flexibility on testing their drones.
“We’re making steps forward, but the technology is still pretty far ahead of the regulators,” Inskeep said.
Large companies including Alphabet and Amazon are looking into using drones to deliver goods. The machines can also aid in search-and-rescue situations. On Tuesday, the White House announced the National Science Foundation will spend $35 million on research over five years on how to use drones for “beneficial applications.”
Despite the government’s past bureaucracy, Sam Wong, an adviser to Qelzal, a San Diego company that is developing technology for drones to avoid obstacles, said he was hopeful after attending the Department of Homeland Security’s meeting last Friday.
“This was one of the few opportunities I’ve seen where a branch of government was reaching out to not just the usual suspects,” Wong said, adding he was heartened by the number of small businesses in the audience.
About a decade ago, Wong’s networking consulting company, Network Architects, had gone through the red tape and paperwork needed to get a government designation aimed at businesses that are more than half owned and operated by “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.” The designation helps small businesses land government contracts, but as Wang found out it was still hard to compete against large companies. After years of trying, he only landed one government contract worth $25,000.
“I didn’t know how to sell to the federal government,” Wong said. “You’re the little minnow swimming with the sharks.”
Wong said his firm is evaluating whether it partner with another firm and apply to department’s open call for drones.
“It was refreshing to see opportunities,” Wong said. “It’s not so much the little guy pushing into a space dominated by big players. It seemed to be an invitation out there from the biggest guy — the government.”