The U.S. Department of Homeland Security now uses technology invented in Athens, Ohio to crack down on illegal immigrants and drug runners who breach the nation's borders.
The portable BuckEye Cam camera, designed and engineered by Athens Technical Specialists Inc. (ATSI), takes videos and pictures that can be sent wirelessly to a cell base, and then forwarded to personal computers or smart phones miles away. Up to 30 cameras can be controlled from a single cell base. The color and infrared pictures and video are captured when heat and motion sensors are triggered.
"The original concept around the product idea is so that you can pattern deer," said ATSI General Manager Sean White, the architect of the BuckEye Cam camera concept. "So if you're hunting several hundred yards down or upstream from that camera, you'd be able to anticipate the movement."
The camera proved to be more than a hunting tool. In July, the Department of Homeland Security reported a purchase of $40,535 for 70 long-range wireless BuckEye Cam cameras on www.fbo.gov. The federal government is the BuckEye Cam's largest single customer.
"There're a lot of similarities between what they [Border Patrol agents] do and hunting," explained White. "They don't like to visit the site. They don't want the target to know the camera is there, because it disturbs the ability to monitor the area successfully. They are trying to catch bad guys, hunters are trying to capture a trophy, but the way they go about it is very similar."
Nine years ago, Sean White and Ted Gilfert, the CEO at ATSI, had not intended to market this product to federal agencies. In fact, the camera was originally intended to steer the Athens-based company away from the government market.
The "classic garage shop" ATSI startup founded by Ohio University electrical engineering professor James C. Gilfert has sold traffic-signal testing equipment to state departments of transportation since 1982 (traffic technologies still make up more than half of the company's sales, according to Ted Gilfert). When the new millennium came around, Ted Gilfert, hired by his father, Dr. Gilfert, as general manager of ATSI in 1992, and the ATSI team wanted to take the company in a slightly new direction.
"At that particular time in the company, we were looking to expand into a more diverse product line," said White. "We had never had a real honest-to-goodness consumer product and we felt that would… give the company more stability and more room to grow."
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AFTER A TWO-AND-A-HALF YEAR stint in which the company unsuccessfully tried to tap the railroad industry, White decided to explore innovation in a field he knew best – hunting. He believed the ATSI's camera solved the "antiquated" 35 mm scouting camera problem, where the hunter has to visit the camera every other day to retrieve footage, and risk disturbing the site. The BuckEye Cam, with solar charge and wireless signal, can go untouched for long periods of time.
Beyond hunting, the camera was also purchased for research.
"OU has done research on using our cameras to film seed dispersement for native flowers," said White. "We'd set up over seed-bearing flower, and literally the seed was the target, and then they would see which animal would take that seed to see how it would by dispersed."
Now they have cameras operating in Antarctica, the Amazon rain forest, Australian Outback and Namibian national parks.
White said surveillance of personal or corporate property was an unplanned market, but ended up being popular.
One buyer, Mike McWhorter, uses the cameras for his business, Landmark Forestry, a forest-consulting firm in West Virginia. He also sets them up on his hunting properties. In an interview with The Athens NEWS, he said the trail cam captured a person riding a four-wheeler on his land.
"One day I drove up right beside him on the road. I pulled the picture out, handed it to him and told him I took his picture and I don't expect to see him on my property again," said McWhorter. "I haven't had a single picture of anybody on that property again."
Even local law enforcement may be getting equipped with ATSI "surveillance" systems. Gilfert told The Athens NEWS that officers from the Athens County Sheriff's Office recently visited the ATSI headquarters on U.S. Rt. 50/Ohio Rt. 32, between Athens and Albany, to inquire about the cameras.
THE BIG BREAK FOR THE Athens business came two years ago when the U.S. Army rang ATSI headquarters.
"That almost came out of the blue," said Gilfert. "It was two years ago in February they ordered (cameras). They were stationed in Fallujah (Iraq) at the time… We were ecstatic. This was a huge sale. It was by far the biggest sale of cameras we'd ever done."
Gilfert said they now have cameras in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other federal agencies followed soon after, with purchases by border patrols on both sides of the Canadian and Mexican borders.
The Athens NEWS spoke over the phone with a Vietnam veteran and creator of the site www.borderinvasionpics.com. He lives near the Arizona-Mexico border, and said he "got sick and tired of chasing aliens across (his) property." The man requested his name not be published for security reasons. On the website, he shows videos he shot with his own cameras of illegal immigrants crossing the Arizona-Mexico border. He is a consultant and adviser to the BuckEye Cam staff about what types of technology best suits the effort of border security. He called the BuckEye Cam camera "invaluable."
"The highest levels of homeland security aren't interested in catching everybody. They're interested in the perception that the border is secure," he said. "In certain areas, there are groups and teams and certain areas of agents that are dead serious, and for them, (the BuckEye Cam) is a huge help."
He said U.S. citizens should be more concerned about the drug runners coming across the border. He said these criminals, more than regular undocumented border crossers, are the problem.
The fact that the BuckEye system is mobile, wireless and real time, he said, "gives us a true advantage in the fight." He also thinks some of the current border surveillance systems are outdated and cannot be managed effectively by so few border personnel.
White repeated the border-watcher's points, "The agents in the field have 100 things they've got to do," he said. "To be able to deploy just a couple cameras in a couple minutes, versus a big contract bringing construction in, putting a tower up, and run a power line out there (is valuable)."
One of the main suggestions that both the Vietnam vet and McWhorter made in the interviews with The Athens NEWS is that the cameras should be smaller.
Indeed, Gilfert said that ATSI plans to release a model called the X7D, about a third the size of the previous BuckEye Cam model, very soon.
THE $3.5 MILLION (in sales per year) company is truly an Athens-born-and-raised outfit. It currently employs several Ohio University and Hocking College graduates. It grew with the help of the OU Innovation Center in the 1990s, staffed by OU graduate students, and later moved to its facilities on Rt. 50/32. Most designing, prototyping, developing, manufacturing and retail work is done at its current facilities.
When asked if he has a stance on the political or federal agendas that could result from BuckEye Cam footage on U.S. borders, White said, "We like to think of ourselves as the messenger. If there's nothing going on, our cameras will show that, and if there's something going on, it'll show that too. That's not really for us to decide one way or another."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published with permission from The Athens News.