A soldier in Afghanistan kneels down, maybe to tie his shoe or set his gear on the ground for a moment. A minute later, he stands up and keeps walking. To the casual observer, nothing out of the ordinary just happened, but a closer look reveals that he just buried a coffee mug-size sensor in the dirt, one of several he will sink on this patrol.

The device, called an expendable unattended ground sensor (E-UGS), will automatically alert a workstation or mobile phone when a human walks within 30 meters of it. The UGS can act as an invisible trip wire, or a surreptitious doorbell, and can be linked to trigger cameras, drones, or remote-controlled weapons. The target would never know how he or she was discovered. It sounds like advanced combat, but in a few months, the person burying that sensor might not be a soldier, but a U.S. border patrol agent working on President-elect Donald Trump’s wall.

That’s the scenario put forth by Robert Jones, chief of the counter threat technology operations at Applied Research Associates, a major defense contractor. Inverse spoke with Jones at a security trade show called ISC East, and he says that ARA could be in for a windfall in government contracts, given Trump’s repeated promises to ramp up militarization of the U.S.’s southern border.

“For ARA, it gives us obviously an opportunity to use this technology down there,” Jones tells Inverse. “This technology has been proven in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Branded as the “Pathfinder,” the device is the only version of the technology that’s inexpensive enough to deploy and forget about. Earlier generations could cost thousands of dollars a pop, where the Pathfinder retails for $499, or $549 for a slightly larger version about the size of a thermos.

A soldier setting up a Tactical Unattended Ground Sensor (T-UGS) as part of a training exercise.
A soldier setting up a Tactical Unattended Ground Sensor (T-UGS) as part of a training exercise. 

Carlos Diaz, a spokesperson for Customs and Border Patrol, tells Inverse that the U.S. is looking into using Pathfinders in the future.

“Border Patrol currently has a handful of the ARA Pathfinder Expendable Unattended Ground Sensors (UGS) which are currently undergoing field testing among various other systems but are not currently operationally deployed,” Diaz wrote in an emailed statement. “Due to the terrain and operational variances along our northern, southwest and coastal borders we have taken a balanced approach in the selection of UGS, resulting in an amalgamation of sensors varying in size, technology, and capabilities.”

Pathfinders can either be scattered, like a minefield, or used in a targeted area – say a fork in the road. As a person walks down the path, the sensors go off like a game of connect-the-dots. When the path splits, the Pathfinder on the right detects movement, which lets observers know which direction the target is going and, over time, could reveal large travel patterns.

“What you do is put it in the known routes where the coyotes and the illegal immigrants are trafficking — DHS knows those routes, Border Patrol knows those routes, there’s not enough guys to get to them all the time,” says Jones. “What you can do it put these sensors in those known areas where they move, the wadis [dry ravines], the washes, the valleys, and you can map their movement. You can say, we just had someone come out of the Rio Grande using this particular wadi, and he’s gonna intersect I-8 in two hours. Let’s go get some lunch, we’ll come back and get him later.”

“You have less rotor time, less helicopter time, you have [fewer] dogs dying in the desert, overheating,” Jones explains. “You have [fewer] border agents, because you don’t need them running all over the place where the don’t need to be.”

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The Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol agents have been repurposing weapons developed for use in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the southern border for years, including unmanned ground sensors. Still, the Pathfinder, combined with Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, could herald a new level of surveillance capabilities and sheer number of devices deployed in the field. The device that became Pathfinder was originally developed in conjunction between DARPA and ARA following a battlefield disaster in Afghanistan in 2008, when Taliban fighters were able to sneak up on a combat outpost and ambush coalition soldiers. The U..S. military had first generation ground sensors, but they were too expensive to use widely and the battery life was too short. The current Pathfinder has a battery life of up to eight months for the small version, and two years for the large version.

A publicity illustration by ARA that generally shows how Pathfinder technology works.
A publicity illustration by ARA that generally shows how Pathfinder technology works.

That evolution, from war on terror to border enforcement, is common, most notably with drones and biometric devices. Todd Miller studies the hyper-militarization of U.S. borders and is the author of Border Patrol Nation.

“This industry has been in a constant growth spurt”

“ARA is following a quite common trend of, as one vendor put it to me, bringing the ‘battlefield to the border.’ They join a long list of monolith military manufacturers and companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman and many others that are jumping into the ever-growing and expanding border militarization industry,” Miller tells Inverse. “This industry has been in a constant growth spurt since 9/11, when counter-terrorism (and its subsequent budgets) became the primary mission of the U.S. Border Patrol. We can only anticipate that this industry will only get another boost after Donald Trump takes office, since the border was always front-and-center to his campaign.”

Turning the border into a low-key war zone is the wrong approach, according to Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. “Border communities are diverse, vibrant, economically resilient and among the safest in the nation. They are not war zones where military-style enforcement takes precedent over the rights enshrined in the Constitution. Militarized equipment have no place in our backyards,” Ramirez told Inverse in a statement.

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump.

Trump’s repeated promises aside, many observers are skeptical that he’ll be able to follow through. “It is highly doubtful that Trump will construct a 2,000-mile wall (especially over the wall that already exists),” says Miller. “Much more probable are many more contracts to companies such as ARA for a border mission even more sinister: a technological fortress of exclusion and internal surveillance.”

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In that regard, at least, Miller and Jones agree with each other. “I think with the whole border fence thing, I know Donald is big on a physical wall,” says ARA’s Jones. “But I think we can gain a lot of ground with something like this.”

Photos via Courtesy of the U.S. Army, ARA, Getty Images / Spencer Platt, Getty Images / Jeff Topping, Courtesy of ARA