Drones for Border and perimeter control in 2023: Opportunities, Pitfalls and Insights

Geophysical research conducted using Microavia UAVs

Lessons learned and advice

1. UAV selection:
It is easy to settle for a drone of a well-known brand, but the reality is that this might not be the best choice. Many UAV manufacturers and quite a few, like Microavia, actually take time to develop UAV platforms for border control specifically. You can evaluate your choice of partner by looking at factors such as endurance, payload capacity, range, and resistance to harsh environmental conditions. To enhance surveillance effectiveness, examine their ability to integrate advanced imaging capabilities, such as high-resolution cameras, thermal sensors, and possibly radar systems.

2. Mesh aerial and ground operations:
Disconnected security systems are a part of the problem, not a solution. Make sure that there is a capability to establish seamless integration between the drone operations and ground control teams. Effective communication, clear protocols, and streamlined data sharing between aerial and ground units are essential to maximize the value of drone surveillance and respond promptly to detected threats

3. Easy planning with UTM will save time:
Depending on the control area specifics, planning automated flights can be more or less complex. Consider your unique circumstances, and don't forget to check the UAV planning capabilities for factors like terrain, weather conditions, restricted airspace, and potential threats. Additionally, consider looking for algorithms that optimize flight paths and coverage areas based on risk assessments to boost overall surveillance efficiency further.

4. Data analysis and fusion:
Most UAV-based platforms have limited analytics, so you will likely need in-house or 3rd party support to bring your analytics to the next level, fusing data from various sources. Some of these data points could include image recognition, computer vision, and AI-based algorithms to process and analyze large amounts of data drones capture. While challenging to perfect (without a huge budget), you can quickly identify potential threats, such as illegal border crossings or suspicious activities, and enhance overall situational awareness. Another great data source to consider is LiDAR technology, which can create high-resolution 3D maps for tracking territory and surface changes.

5. Secure your security communications:
Your security team needs to be… secure. It is imperative to ensure that your UAV infrastructure uses secure and encrypted communication channels between drones and ground control systems to prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, or interference by malicious actors. This is also important for maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive information you will inevitably gather.

6. Keep your human operators in good shape:
A tool is only as good as the person wielding it. Ensure your security team has a comprehensive training program emphasizing flight skills, situational awareness, threat recognition, and data interpretation. Also, such training and skill development are continuous and repeated regularly. It will help ensure operators can effectively utilize the technology at their disposal and improve security as time passes rather than rely on outdated practices and protocols. Encourage the team to learn about new technologies and speak up about opportunities. Did you know acoustic sensors can drastically enhance situational awareness in areas with limited visibility, providing proper setup and analytics?

7. Don't neglect maintenance and redundancy:
As with most other processes, a sustainable maintenance and inspection regime needs to be implemented. It will help ensure the drones remain in optimal operating condition. Some measures should include backup drones and spare parts availability to minimize disruptions and ensure uninterrupted surveillance capabilities. The same applies to payloads, so if you use seismic sensors to detect potential underground activities, then regular calibration and testing is a must.

8. Legal and Regulatory Compliance:
While using technology for security purposes is "generally" acceptable, there are a lot of laws, regulations, and privacy considerations governing the use of drones in border and object control operations. Ensure compliance with airspace regulations, privacy protection requirements, and any permits or licenses necessary for operating UAVs in the designated area. If used in regions like Europe, where GDPR and several other acts strictly govern biometric identification systems, take extra care. Failing to adhere to data protection laws may backfire spectacularly in case of legal action against perpetrators. This includes examining where/if the UAV platform provider has access to data or, potentially, copies it.

9. Collaboration with other stakeholders:
This is slightly counterintuitive but extremely important: talk to your peers and exchange insights and ideas. Where applicable, you can cooperate with your literal neighbors and establish joint monitoring operations. This will boost efficiency and affect final project costs, as ordering hardware, software and maintenance in bulk can bring significant savings. Obviously, you need this cooperation to be smart and strategic, with proper security protocols, NDAs, and contingency plans in place. After all, the best security is the hidden one, and the fewer know about your secret, the safer it will be. Also, if you are in the private sector, don't hesitate to work with police and security agencies. In most cases, they are happy to share insights and, potentially, even run audits/penetration tests for free for you to ensure national security.

10. Always evaluate and adapt:
Last but not least, evaluate the effectiveness of drone-based monitoring operations through feedback loops, performance metrics, and lessons learned. Continuously adapt and refine strategies, technologies, and operational procedures to address emerging challenges and utilize technological advancements. Unfortunately, attackers are often a step ahead, so it's imperative to keep updating your security posture and capabilities.

Some warnings
UAVs bring many excellent capabilities, but there are also some pitfalls. Most are natural, but it's essential to be aware of these to avoid a false sense of security:

1. Complex environments can be a significant issue:
While UAVs equipped with advanced sensors such as LiDAR and thermal cameras will enhance your surveillance ops, they may still face limitations in areas with dense vegetation or urban areas with high-rise buildings. Make sure to supplement such locations with ground surveillance radars, acoustic sensors, or seismic sensors. These will complement UAV data by providing additional detection capabilities in challenging terrain or low visibility conditions.

2. UAVs are not immune to weather:
Inclement weather can impact UAV operations, especially in mountain and water-front regions. This might mean your entire UAV fleet will be grounded due to a 30 m/s wind on any given day. The two steps you can take: Work with your UAV provider to ensure a realistic picture of the drone's operational limits; provide some kind of backup solution, even if suboptimal, like ground as mentioned above surveillance radars or fiber optic intrusion detection systems, which are less susceptible to weather conditions.

3. They are also not immune to electronic warfare either:
UAVs are susceptible to countermeasures, but this goes both ways. You can implement drone detection and countermeasure systems to mitigate the risk of unauthorized intruder drone activities, which can disrupt your UAV operations, as can the offenders. Take a complex approach, as mentioned in the previous point.

4. Be careful with budgeting:
Maintaining a fleet of UAVs can be expensive if you have to take care of large territories. Various sensors and payloads can also cost a small fortune with an added twist: many security-related items can be considered dual-use articles, meaning falling under unique government controls. This can potentially create a situation where your supplier of choice is suddenly unable to supply you with upgrades, etc., creating new issues for your budget and security posture. This is why it's often a good idea to keep a healthy supply of spare parts and drones in case of a shortage. You might be stuck with older versions of hard- and software, but at least you will not stand unprotected.

In summary
Incorporating UAVs, combined with advanced sensors and technologies, can create a near-impregnable security posture that can bring your security ops to the next level. Smart integrations will mitigate most downsides of relying on just one outdated tool and address many challenges today and tomorrow.
As usual, if you want to learn more about using drone-in-a-box, tethered, and other UAV types and payloads for your security, talk to one of Microavia's security project coordinators!