Together, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) cut the ribbon on S&T’s new Maryland Test Facility (MdTF), on June 26 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The MdTF, designed by S&T along in partnership with CBP operational staff, will test and evaluate operational processes using both biometric and non-biometric technologies as part of the Apex Air Entry/Exit Re-Engineering (AEER) project.
“Apex AEER is a collaborative partnership between S&T and CBP designed to assist CBP in addressing the entry challenges as well as to enable the Department to meet the mandate for a biometric air exit capability,” explained Robert Burns, S&T's Apex AEER director.
According to Kim Mills, the director of the Entry/Exit Transformation office located within CBP’s Office of Field Operations, when she received the mission of incorporating biometrics into the exit process for air travelers, her team immediately turned to S&T, the Department’s research and development directorate, for assistance.
“The efficient and accurate capture of Entry and Exit records at U.S. ports is critical to the CBP mission, and goes to the core of the integrity of the immigration and border management system,” said Mills. “The technology exists today, but the challenge is how and where to implement it. This facility will put us on the right path to integrate biometric technology within the departure process.”
The MdTF is a 25,000 square-foot, controlled laboratory and scenario-based testing environment to evaluate biometric technologies and operational processes under simulated airport entry and exit conditions. The facility supports two functions: increase screening capacity for travelers entering the United States and meet the increasing traveler volumes while minimizing traveler wait times, and identify cost-effective biometric entry and exit solutions to meet the congressional mandate.
“This is much more than a technology project,” stressed Burns. “It’s about taking technology and integrating it with the CBP mission while facilitating secure air travel.”
Currently, more than 80 million international air travelers enter the U.S. annually, and each year that number continues to grow. The MdTF introduces laboratory-tested, commercial-off-the-shelf biometric and other technologies to volunteer participants in a testing environment. Volunteer participants are recruited from the national capital region and reflect the diverse population of international air-traveling public.
“The MdTF is the key component to the success of the Apex AEER project. This is where we are taking the DHS mission of entry/exit and really bringing it to fruition. This facility provides the ability to integrate a biometric exit capture, and run it through the existing processes in a simulated environment before introducing new technology and processes at an airport.” Mills said.
As a part of an operational analysis, the Apex AEER team visited the top 10 airports in the U.S. to observe their current entry and exit procedures and formed a working group with CBP officers to discuss potential impacts on operations.
“By utilizing CBP officers as the subject matter experts, the individuals who will ultimately operate the technology are the one’s helping the team reengineer the process and develop the solution,” said Mills.
“Here in the MdTF and in the project overall, we are bringing the science and technology experts together with the operator from the field. We’re also bringing in the psychologist, human factors engineer, the policy and legal experts, private industry, and the American public to ensure we look at all aspects of a complex mission need,” Burns said.
As part of the ribbon cutting, Burns and Mills invited key leaders from DHS, CBP, and S&T to tour the facility and observe the testing process. Senior leadership from S&T and CBP came away impressed with both the facility and the partnership between CBP and S&T.
“I think a lot of thought has gone into this effort, how to socialize biometrics with the community. I’ve been sitting here looking for a weakness in this approach, and I can’t find one. I think you have done a really thorough job setting up this test facility for success, including bringing (CBP) officers in and giving them a crack at it. You’ve established credibility with all your hard work,” said Christopher Maston, CBP OFO deputy assistant commissioner.
The MdTF will ultimately leverage biometric and other technologies and develop a comprehensive strategy to speed up the inspection process and optimize resources. By looking a variety of technologies and trying to directly apply them to an operational process within the facility, there will be real-time results and minimal impact on real-world air travel.