Could ‘smart walls’ replace physical barriers at the US-Mexico border?


Nelson Balido is the principal and founder of Balido & Associates, a strategic business consultancy with government, trade, travel, security and cross-border expertise. Opinions are the author’s own.

Six months out from President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the future of the border wall between Mexico and the United States is up in the air. There is not doubt that his stop-work executive order will affect the fate of our country’s southern border barrier and have dramatic effects for construction companies currently in business with the government as well as companies that hope to win federal contracts in the future. 

The stop work order halts the creation of any new contracts for construction of the physical border wall, and stops movement forward on any phases of construction that have not yet been committed for or started. 

However, that doesn’t mean there will be zero opportunities to secure contracts with the government related to our southern border. In fact, those opportunities may simply shift toward the more technology-focused smart wall that is dominating the conversation currently. 

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Nelson Balido

Permission granted by Balido & Associates


The general idea that has been put forth by the new administration is that construction of the border wall will be replaced with a metaphorical wall consisting mainly of sensors that would serve as an intruder alert system, as opposed to a physical barrier. This smart wall would function as a large-scale security system at the border line, in replacement of the brick-and-mortar wall that was being constructed prior to January. 

This means that while traditional construction companies may lose out on opportunities, technology companies have much to gain. 

What to consider

Before any construction begins on a smart wall border, there are various elements that should be carefully considered in order to ensure the effectiveness of its implementation. These include:

Inefficiency. One of the main problems with a physical border wall that will be an obstacle for any smart wall solutions is that physical barriers only slow down intruders, rather than stop them from crossing entirely. In areas where we currently have a physical border wall in place, the barrier gives border agencies more time to respond to the threat, but there is simply nothing that is failsafe.

Location. The border wall is on U.S. soil. By virtue of the border wall’s location, even if you had someone on the other side, by law, the officer would have to go around the barrier and arrest the intruder, rather than just turn them away. In some ways, this creates more hassle and inefficiency than not having a wall at all. 

Level of tech sophistication. With a smart border wall, there are even more obstacles to overcome in order to ensure the wall’s efficiency. A smart border wall would need to be made up of various sensors to detect who and what is headed to the border. It’s important that these sensors are sophisticated enough to distinguish between animals and humans, and that they have a far range in order to be able to detect intruders from as far off as possible to give time for border enforcement to react and respond. This type of alert can be given by unattended ground sensors, LiDAR technology, cameras, fiber lines buried in the ground and various other forms of technology.

But the bottom line is that there must be as much information as possible transmitted by the “smart wall” so that enforcers know how to respond and in what force.

Communication needs. Lastly, topline communications are vital to the development of a smart border wall. A very large part of the regions along our southern border, and certainly the even larger and more remote northern border, do not have any form of communications. Border enforcers currently have to depend on satellite phones when they go out into some of these areas, but if there are no power lines or options for telephone comms, then there is clearly no power for a smart border wall, either. So, this presents a large opportunity for companies who specialize in power and energy — especially in remote areas — to win government contracts. Any smart wall installation or construction plan will come with tremendous power needs that the current border wall does not.

Even if power is created in some of these areas that would be needed to support the smart technology of the border wall, cell communications and radio communications will likely remain spotty at best, and the technology that would be required to facilitate communications in these very remote border areas is extremely expensive; for instance, the cost of satellite phone services in these areas are astronomical, to a point where they are unsustainable due to the costs associated. 

However, one of the up-and-coming technologies that can be used to transport communication signals at a very high rate of speed, and at a cost that is non-reoccurring, is Troposcatter technology. Troposcatter is an emerging portable communications system that uses atmospheric particles to transport communication waves. The system can be taken anywhere and converted from a point-to-point system into a multi-point system depending on the situations. With Troposcatter technology in the picture, the idea of a smart wall is much more attainable because comms could be paired with the smart border at a faster, more cost-efficient pace. 

As you can gather, the stop-work on the southern border doesn’t mean the end of contract opportunities for private companies. In fact, a smart border wall presents a myriad of opportunities for companies to win business from the federal government. There will be a need for many different technological services, so if you own a company or product that you believe could benefit the smart border wall, the time to start positioning yourself at an advantage to win those contracts is now.


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