Homeland Security Keeps An Eye On The Sky With App-Dev Strategy

The federal government's Office of Air and Marine Operations is ready to leverage its new IT infrastructure to monitor nationwide radar activity.

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

February 23, 2005

3 Min Read

When the Office of Air and Marine Operations upgraded its IT infrastructure last year, it was the first step in the agency's plans to better secure the nation's airspace. Now AMO, part of the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection agency, is looking to leverage its tech-savvy speed and power to give law enforcement and antiterrorism agents a more complete picture of nationwide radar activity.

AMO wants to implement by the end of the June a software-development strategy that will let the organization's Air and Marine Operations Center in Riverside, Calif., transform radar-surveillance data feeds from agencies as diverse as the Defense Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, and 20 regional Air Route Traffic Control Centers into a comprehensive data map of airborne activity over the United States and the Caribbean. This would include an application that analyzes aircraft flight plans against actual flight patterns and can automatically alert operation center staff when an aircraft deviates from its flight plan.

Each agency sends the operations center radar data over a private IP network for security purposes. "Our system takes the different radar [data] formats, fuses them in our center, and sends them to our operators for the big picture," says Jim Durrett, the operations center's assistant director for systems management.

AMO's predecessor, the Customs Aviation program, was created in 1969 to help law enforcement track light private aircraft smuggling drugs into the United States from South and Central American countries. AMO's mission expanded after 9/11 to include not just the United States' southern border but the entire country, Durrett says. As a result, the operations center needed to upgrade the Unix-based SGI systems it had been running since the mid-1990s to new systems with the chip speeds and memory capacity to process a greater amount of data from a larger pool of sources, including civilian and military radar sites, aerostat balloon-borne radar, and airborne reconnaissance aircraft.

The operations center in November completed the upgrade from SGI Power Challenger servers running the 6.2 version of the vendor's Irix operating system to SGI Altix servers running 16 64-bit Intel Itanium 2 processors, SGI InfiniteStorage Shared Filesystem CXFS file-sharing software, and the Red Hat Linux open-source operating system. The move from Unix to Linux also let the operations center move up to Oracle Database 10g, since Irix support went only as far as Oracle 6. Meanwhile, the servers and storage software give the operation center staff access to 8 terabytes of SGI InfiniteStorage TP9500 Fibre Channel disk on an SGI storage-area network.

The upgrades let the operation center handle simultaneous data feeds from up to 450 radar sites, whereas the previous system could handle 128 radar feeds at one time. The system also doubled the center's capacity to manage up to 24,000 "tracks" at a time, Durrett says. A track is a specific target, an aircraft or some other object, that a radar system monitors.

AMO's role within Homeland Security is expected to increase over time. The Bush administration proposed in its fiscal 2006 budget $44.2 million in funding for long-range radar technology used to detect and intercept aircraft attempting to avoid detection while entering the United States. The budget also proposes $293 million for the operations and maintenance of Customs and Border Patrol's air and marine infrastructure to guard against smuggling and terrorism.

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