TUCSON, Ariz. — Imagine an invisible laser beam homed in on the carotid artery in your neck, reading your blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate as you wait in line to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.
The results would help port officers determine if you are agitated, under stress or perhaps fearful. That, officials say, would help them detect more smugglers and illegal immigrants and better secure the border.
Continued development of the device, called the laser Doppler vibrometer, for use at the border is one example of the work that will be possible in the new Department of Homeland Security-funded National Center for Border Security and Immigration Research. The center officially opened on the University of Arizona campus last week.
“What we are trying to sense is, ‘Do people who are telling a lie, do they give off a different signal than people telling the truth?’ ” Jay Nunamaker, director of the center, said about the device.
Homeland Security has pledged to give the center more than $16 million over the next six years to research and develop new technologies and tools to balance immigration and commerce with effective border security.
The university will direct the research arm of the center while its co-leader, the University of Texas-El Paso, will direct the center’s educational functions. The center includes 10 other research universities — including Arizona State University — to form a consortium of institutions.
The University of Arizona will receive 40 percent of the funds, or $6.4 million, said Nunamaker, currently director of the UA’s Center for Management of Information at the Eller College of Management.
The laser Doppler vibrometer was created for medical use but has been developed as a potential border-security tool at Washington University in St. Louis and is being tested at the University of Arizona’s deception-detection lab to see if it would work on the border, university officials said.
The technology isn’t ready for use on the border yet, though, Nunamaker said. Researchers haven’t figured out how to make the red laser beam invisible, and they can’t get good readings on people with beards, short necks or who are wearing turtlenecks, he said. And it works only up to 10 feet, but they are hoping to get it to work from longer distances, he said.
“There’s a lot of practical aspects and I would think when we take it to the border, we are going to find more,” Nunamaker said. “We’ve done work at Nogales at the port of entry, and what we find is the lighting is very different at the border, the vibrations are different, you are picking up all kinds of noise.”
The work on the device is an example of how the center will handle projects, said Nunamaker and Elyse Golob, executive director of the National Center for Border Security and Immigration Research. The center will develop devices in the lab, test them in the field and then take them back to the lab to make necessary changes, Golob said.
“It might work in a nice air-conditioned room here at McClelland Hall, but if it’s 115 degrees out in Nogales or 120 in Yuma, Arizona, what’s going to happen when it’s there?” Golob said. “In those circumstances we will certainly draw upon our close working relationships with the CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) to test our technology in a real-world situation.”
The center’s work won’t be focused solely on border security. Leaders have established eight projects that cover a range of immigration and border topics.
One project will set out to determine the size and characteristics of the illegal-immigration population in the United States. Another will examine the economic impacts of immigration.
There’s a project dedicated to law enforcement and international cooperation and another to look at civil liberties and rights.
The project reflects Homeland Security’s goal of looking into the future for border-security solutions and past the common remedies of more agents and barriers, said Jay Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology with the Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security has devoted $50 million for five centers of excellence around the country, Cohen said.
“We are offering solutions that do it better, faster, cheaper and are culturally acceptable,” Cohen said. “If we don’t want to make that investment in the future, we continue doing things the way they are, but that’s not the American way and that’s not how we solve problems.”
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., came away impressed by some of the projects after a tour. She likened some of the technology under development to midair holograms out of “Star Wars” and invisibility cloaks out of “Harry Potter.”
“It’s something you would see out of a sci-fi movie when it comes to interrogating people, in terms of authenticating whether or not a person really is that person,” Giffords said. “Stuff that you just think is totally fantastic and would never be able to be achieved, they are doing it here at the University of Arizona.”