The newest addition to the United States’ border force could be robotic dogs. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released new details this week about trials of quadrupedal robots on the southern border. The machines are being tested in a variety of surveillance-focused roles, and while DHS has not shared a timeline for long-term implementation, it says the trials were “successful” and work with the machines will continue.
“The southern frontier can be an inhospitable place for humans and animals, which is exactly why a machine can excel there,” said Brenda Long, program manager for the research and development division of DHS’s Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate. ), in a blog post. “This S&T-led initiative focuses on automated ground surveillance vehicles, or what we call ‘AGSVs’. Essentially, the AGSV program is all about… robot dogs.”
The quadrupedal machines are built by Ghost Robotics, competitor of the better known Boston Dynamics (makers of the Spot robot). Ghost Robotics’ most popular model, the Ghost Vision 60, stands 76cm tall, weighs 32kg and can cover more than 12 miles in 3 hours on a single battery charge.
The machine can navigate autonomously or be manually controlled and can be equipped with a number of payloads, including thermal and night vision cameras. In the past, Ghost Robotics has even shown prototypes equipped with weapons, though there’s no suggestion DHS is testing such payloads.
In a detailed blog post, DHS outlined how it tested the robot dogs for possible work at the border. The machines have been field tested, patrolling autonomously at preset GPS waypoints while wearing cameras and sensors; for railway wagon inspections at yards, walk-around and under carriages; and exploring residential buildings, including “a scenario that simulated potentially hostile individuals encountering.”
These are all tasks that robotic dogs have been tested for before. The main appeal of these quadrupedal machines is that, unlike tracked or wheeled machines, they can navigate through any environment that humans can, including stairs, stairs, steep hills and rocky terrain.
But despite their sophistication, these machines also have obvious limitations. Field trials have revealed a number of potential issues, including limited battery life and erratic behavior. When the French military tested Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot during military exercises, soldiers complained that the machine ran out of juice too soon, while reports of US police trials against Spot complained of unreliable controls and patchy performance, with the machines sometimes tipping over “for no apparent reason.”
Politicians and civil rights groups have also criticized the use of such machines as degrading, especially when robots are used to communicate with members of the public. In particular, the US border forces involved in these recent trials, such as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), are themselves notorious for their dehumanizing behavior towards immigrants. A 2021 investigation by Humans Right Watch yielded 160 internal reports of, for example, physical and sexual abuse of asylum seekers at the border in recent years.
In its blog post, the DHS likens the deployment of robotic dogs at the border to aerial drones — as “power multipliers” that can complement the work of human agents. As efforts to build physical walls across the borders of the United States stall, the government has increasingly turned to technological solutions, and robotic dogs seem like an obvious addition to this pack. As DHS concludes, “don’t be surprised if in the future we see robot ‘Fido’ walking in the field side by side with CBP personnel.”