Sandia LabNews

Sandia researchers merge serious gaming, simulation tools to create high-level models for border security

Donna Djordjevich (8116) describes the high-level model of border security to Jill Hruby, VP of the IHNS SMU and Div. 6000. The software provides a virtual environment where users can run various scenarios to see the outcome of their decisions. (Photo by Dino Vournas)
Donna Djordjevich (8116) describes the high-level model of border security to Jill Hruby, VP of the IHNS SMU and Div. 6000. The software provides a virtual environment where users can run various scenarios to see the outcome of their decisions. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

The responsibility of securing the US homeland from terrorists and other threats while facilitating legitimate trade and travel falls on the shoulders of the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It’s not an easy task.

Sandia researchers at both the California and New Mexico sites, however, are doing their part to help the government answer the difficult questions that face CBP officials every day. With funding from CBP, Sandia is using a serious gaming platform known as Ground Truth, a force-on-force battle simulation tool called DANTE, and the work of several collaborating organizations to develop the Borders High Level Model (HLM), a high-fidelity simulation and analysis program that aids policy and decision-makers tasked with making key procurements and funding choices.

“There’s a lot of debate going on in the government concerning the technology and infrastructure investments that need to be made along the border,” explains Jason Reinhardt (8112), who serves as the Borders HLM project manager and deputy program manager for borders security within the Labs’ International, Homeland and Nuclear Security (IHNS) Strategic Management Unit. “How much fence do we need? What kind of fence? What is the right mix of border personnel and technology? How can sensors, vehicles, and other technical equipment most effectively be used? With Borders HLM, CBP officials can simulate their defensive architectures, accurately measure their performance, and start to answer these difficult questions.”

Ground Truth (Lab News, 8/17/07), initially funded through an LDRD in 2007, is a gaming platform originally designed to prepare decision makers and first responders for weapons of mass destruction/weapons of mass effect (WMD/WME) attacks in metropolitan areas. Developed by computer scientist Donna Djordjevich (8116), principal investigator on the Borders HLM project, the software provides a virtual environment where users can play through various scenarios to see the effects of their decisions under the constraints of time and resources.

For the Borders HLM project, the Ground Truth software has been integrated into a bottom-projected touch surface table. On this game surface, users can see “people” moving across the border terrain, observe CBP “personnel” respond to incidents, and essentially control those movements and “apprehend” suspects. Users can also view a leader board of sorts that shows how many suspects have been apprehended, the dollar amount spent implementing the chosen architecture, and other metrics that matter to CBP decision makers.

DANTE, also part of the Borders HLM platform, is a force-on-force battle simulation tool built on the well-known Umbra simulation framework ( that Sandia researchers developed and introduced in 2001. Umbra is a flexible, tactical, hybrid simulation engine and framework that can integrate physical, cyber, and behavioral elements at variable fidelity in a 3-D environment.

The work also builds upon a Borders Grand Challenge project from the mid-2000s (focused on the impact of new detection technology at ports of entry) and capitalizes on a range of existing Sandia capabilities, including the Weapons of Mass Destruction Decision Analysis Center (WMD-DAC), the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC, a joint Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory program), and even the Labs’ expertise in robotics.

Jason compares Borders HLM to the popular Command & Conquer video game.

“Players can watch people run across the border, and they’re seeing terrain, they’re seeing Border Patrol agents respond and drive around on horses or helicopters or other vehicles, and they’re actually ‘driving’ in a Command & Conquer-style response,” he says. “You might choose to go get this guy, respond to an alarm, adjudicate this apprehension, and so on. Then, at the end, you can evaluate how everything worked.”

There were a number of technical challenges in integrating a mature modeling technology like DANTE with a newer gaming technology like Ground Truth, say Jason and Donna.

“We needed to create real-time control for the user, and our current capabilities weren’t built to do that,” Jason says.

“There’s also the fact that we’re modeling 64 square miles of border, and we need to do so at a pretty high fidelity,” adds Donna, who points out that Ground Truth’s terrain was originally developed at a fixed, small scale.

To help overcome some of the barriers, Sandia has looked to some important collaborators.

The University of Utah offers a technology, Visualization Streams for Ultimate Scalability (ViSUS), which allows researchers to progressively stream in terrain and imagery data and minimize data processing requirements, an important consideration given that HLM requires many gigabytes of data. For its part, Happynin’ Games, an iPhone/mobile game development company, developed the 3-D artwork and the characters found in the simulations. Sandia, acting as the systems integrator, then put all the pieces together, presented the Borders HLM product to CBP, and demonstrated how it would allow them to go through all the steps of the “engagement analysis cycle.”

“We learned that the Border Patrol agents and CBP decision-makers need a tool that offers a common view of the problems they face,” Jason says. “With our high-level model, they can play through various scenarios and see how people, technology, and other elements all interact. Then, later, they can go back and do a baseline analysis and dig into the details of why certain architectures and solutions aren’t working as well as they should.”

Even better than failure recognition, Jason points out, is Borders HLM’s ability to demonstrate viable solutions that CBP can implement into its security plans. “They can then play the game again with a recommended solution, and the end users – the people who are actually charged with making it happen on the ground – can critique and tweak it to their liking.”

With additional funding and the right kind of collaborations, Donna says, more robust features could be added to make Borders HLM even more valuable to CBP and other potential customers. The current version, for instance, only deals with individual border crossers, so it doesn’t capture crowd behaviors. Other sensor types, such as radiation detectors or even airborne equipment, could also be added.

Jason says the future of the Borders HLM tool will likely depend on the direction in which CPB chooses to go with its border operations.

“CBP is undergoing a shift in the way it evaluates border security,” he says. “It’s really a difficult problem they’re facing, so they’ve been trying to figure out a systems engineering approach. Our high-level models tool will likely change the way CBP conducts it business, and it will probably have a real long-term impact on how large expenditures are justified or reputed on and around the nation’s borders.”