5 Homeland Security ‘Bots Coming to Spy on You (If They Aren’t Already)


It's been 10 years since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) started up operations. During that decade, DHS has moved to the forefront of funding and deploying the robots and drones that could be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
DHS funds research and development for surveillance robots. It provides grant money by the hundreds of thousands to police agencies to buy their own. And sometimes it's bought and deployed robots -- for their skies, the ground and the waters -- of its own, usually concentrated along the border. It's not clear how many of those robots police operate, and law enforcement isn't by any means the only domestic market for the 'bots. But the trend lines point toward more robotic spy tools for law enforcement in more places -- with more DHS cash.
But it's not going to be simple. The Federal Aviation Administration is cautious about opening the skies to unmanned vehicles -- so much so that Congress and the Obama administration ordered it to ease up on restrictions by 2015. But not all spy robots fly. DHS is also developing robots that resemble fish, and deploys tunnel-bots deep into drug-smuggling tunnels along the border.
Here are five examples.

Predator B

Unarmed Predator surveillance drones inside the United States have had a rocky history. The Department of Homeland Security's sub-agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has flown them off-and-on along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2004. Flights were suspended in 2006 after one of them crashed in Arizona, and drone flights were suspended again in 2010 after a Predator lost communications with its operators. At one point, drone boosters in Congress allocated funding for more drones than CBP had people to fly them.
How things have changed. In the past two years, DHS expanded Predator flights into the Caribbean to hunt for drug traffickers, and has taken to using the drones in an ad-hoc program to help out local police agencies, such as during a June 2011 standoff between SWAT officers and alleged cattle rustlers in Washington state. The drones have been used more broadly than that, reportedly assisting in police investigations from the Midwest to Texas. DHS has also gotten around to expanding its drone fleet. In November, DHS was revealed to be planning to expand its inventory of 10 Predators to 24, and is constructing a testing ground for small surveillance drones at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
But in the years to come, the Predator is likely to have a numerically more marginal role as more law enforcement agencies join the drone bandwagon -- it's exceedingly likely the Predator will remain an exclusive item for the federal government. That is, a federal government putting the machines to work snooping on domestic turf.
Catch it if you can. In September, the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate premiered a prototype of its tuna-shaped robot called BIOSwimmer, developed by Boston Engineering Corporation. The concept revolves around eventually deploying the swimming robot to use in port security operations, and could prove to have several advantages over human divers. For one, it can get into tighter spaces, and can work in areas that have been contaminated with oil or other hazardous chemicals that could pose a risk to human health. But mainly, it's designed to inspect ships and "flooded bilges and tanks, and hard to reach areas such as steerage, propulsion and sea chests," noted a DHS statement.
The flapping motion is also designed to reduce power consumption, and the robot itself is designed with the intention of its sensors being easily swapped out between missions. There's no public timeline for when it's expected to be deployed, if it makes it that far -- the tuna 'bot is still an experimental design. But it's generally a good idea to start on a small scale.