If Russian forces, rebels or militants try to sneak into Estonia or a number of other countries small wireless motion sensors hidden in the brush could detect them long before human border guards.
The devices – built by Defendec, a small Estonian tech firm with only 30 employees – look similar to home security system motion detectors. But these sensors are far more sophisticated, so much so, that the company didn’t allow Defense One to photograph the equipment during the recent International Defence Exhibition and Conference, or IDEX, in Abu Dhabi last week.
When linked together, the equipment, which is camouflaged to blend into the wilderness, can provide situational awareness over hundreds or even thousands of miles of an unguarded border.
“It’s a turnkey solution from the detection to the server where the operator can see everything,” said Jaanus Tamm, the company’s CEO. “It can be centrally managed in a headquarters … or it can be a mobile unit, for example for special forces.”
Countries across Eastern Europe, South America, Southeast Asia and Latin America already use the system, called Smartdec, according to company employees. While the firm does not name all of its 35 customers, its growing list includes Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Montenegro and Kurdistan. The United States does not use the unit, but buys them for foreign militaries, according to company employees.
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American and NATO officials have voiced security concerns over the porousness of European borders, particularly over the past years. In that time, Russian forces invaded Crimea and other parts of Eastern Ukraine. In southern and southeastern Europe, increased migrant movement from Africa and the Middle East has raised security fears; particularly that Islamic State militants and other suspected terrorist might enter the continent undetected. Illegal drug shipments though Latin America and Mexico and into the U.S. has been a problem for decades.
Here’s how the Smartdec system works: Two cameras – one for the daytime, the other for nighttime – snap pictures when a motion alarm is triggered. The images are then relayed wirelessly back to a command center or laptop.
The two-camera system is unique Tamm said. “Usually you have only a night camera or you don’t have night vision,” Tamm said.
These sensors are battery-powered and hold their charge for 400 days, meaning no wires or power infrastructure is needed. When the batteries die, they are recharged and good for another 400 days of use. That lifespan is unique to Smartdec system, according to Tamm.
All of the wirelessly transmitted data is encrypted, which is key because militaries often use equipment that jams or intercepts unprotected data. Pro-Russian forces fighting in eastern Ukraine are believed to be using this type equipment to eavesdrop on Kiev’s soldiers.
An Android-based smartphone with a special encrypted app can configure each Smartdec unit.
“You don’t have to have a $10,000, rugged, military-grade tablet,” Tamm said. “You just have [to have] a simple Android-based phone.”
The wireless units are rapidly deployable too. From the time a check is cut, the company can cover a 1,000-mile border with the system in six to nine months and that includes training the operators, Tamm said. Smaller surveillance areas could be set up in a matter of weeks. Wired detection systems, conversely, can take years set up.
The Department of Homeland Security has spent billions of dollars trying to create an elaborate virtual fence along the U.S. border with Mexico made up of towers with sensors, radar and drones. The effort has been riddled with software and other problems since its inception.
Since its creation about five years ago, the Smartdec system has logged more than 20 million hours in border protection, according to the company. Estonian border guards gave company engineers “some know how” and the system started to gain popularity in Europe, Tamm said.
The company has opened an office in Washington, which they hope will help further expand the use of the Smartdec system globally.