Scott Urquhart with the Helios system  (Source: University of Arizona)

Helios system output where red shows a being crossing the cables. The red markings look different as different beings cross the border. In this case, the red represents horses  (Source: University of Arizona)
Could potentially replace current "ineffective" barriers

Researchers at the University of Arizona (UA) have developed an invisible border monitoring system that could be used to supervise the U.S.-Mexico border.

UA researchers involved in the project are Moe Momayez, an associate professor of mining and geological engineering, and Kevin Moffitt, a research scientist at the UA Center for Border Security and Immigration. Working with UA researchers on the project is a geophysical engineering company called Zonge, which is based in Tucson, Arizona. Scott Urquhart is president and senior geophysicist of the company who has been working very closely with UA researchers on the border monitoring system. Furthermore, Zonge has signed a two-year contract with the system's creator, Fotech Solutions, which is a distributor of acoustic data to energy and security sectors. 

The border monitoring system is called Helios, and it is capable of supervising the whole U.S.-Mexico border at a constant rate. The system is made up of laser pulses that are transmitted through fiber-optic cables buried underground. These laser pulses react to movements on the ground above, and a detector at either end of the cable evaluates these reactions. Helios is capable of distinguishing between humans, animals and vehicles. It can also tell if people are walking, running or digging. 

Helios is a distributed acoustic sensor that operates using "optical backscattering." Backscattering is the reflection of particles, signals or waves back to the direction in which they came from. It also has 50-kilometer fiber-optic cable lengths equipped with a detector that can be strung together to stretch across long distances, such as the 1,969 mile U.S.-Mexico border.

"It's all a matter of scale," said Urquhart. "When very small vibrations hit the fiber-optic cables, the cables are slightly distorted. This distortion creates a unique signature change in the laser pulses, which can be detected by the Helios unit."

While the Helios system could be very valuable to the monitoring of the U.S.-Mexico border, this is not new technology. Similar systems have been developed to monitor bridges, dams, pipelines and highways seismic damage or cracks. 

Nonetheless, the technology is well-suited for the project at hand. The UA-Zonge team created a test site in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona to see how well the Helios system worked. For instance, a 35-pound dog named Blue was sent across the Helios system, and it barely made a trace on the system, showing that the system will not trigger alarms unnecessarily if the being crossing the cables is not a human. 

The cost to implement the Helios system is unknown at this point since there are rumors that it may be integrated into a larger system with mobile surveillance vehicles. But even if this is true, those working on the Helios project have said the cost of the Helios system would still be lower than the cost of the "ineffective barriers" used today such as disconnected grids of sensors and steel/electric fences. 

As we speak, Fotech is automating the Helios system. The next step is to build a "database of signals" and use advanced pattern-recognition software to automatically analyze events picked up by the system. Zonge is also looking to work with a technical partner that could offer storage and large-scale analyses of the volumes of data that the system will both gather and store. 

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