A new test just underway using a local technology could be the first step toward an ambitious goal: a complete, real-time view of America's entire shoreline.
Along the shoreline of Carlsbad, a tiny but powerful radar is up and running, detecting all vessels as far as 20 miles out. It is potential critical technology that could step up security along the coastline.
"Think of it as counterterrorism 2.0 going to 3.0," said San Diego State University professor and national security expert Ron Bee.
The data coming from the radar, which sits on state land, is being fed into a room reminiscent of NASA's mission control.
Inside March Air Reserve Base near Riverside is one of the nerve centers of the country's airspace, gathering radar and intelligence information and supplying it to law enforcement agencies.
The 25-year-old program has cut down illegal cross-border flights down from hundreds to a handful. Now, its focus is being directed toward the sea.
"I think it's a great idea, and it'll help us keep ahead of the bad guys," said Bee.
Test began several weeks ago to determine how big a help the privately-owned radar will be.
Using new software, the radar's data will be combined with data from other radars and cameras along the shoreline, then fed into the operations center and supplied to law enforcement agencies.
Customs and Border Protection runs the operations center and is overseeing the tests. The hope is potential drug smugglers or terrorist threats can be spotted and intercepted. Illegal immigration is another target.
The ultimate goal is an ambitious one: comprehensive view of all maritime vessels within 100 miles of the U.S. coastline.
To accomplish that, CBP officials hope to look to the skies.
"We believe we can get to a point that the maritime radar on our (military) aircraft can be fed back and integrated," said Tony Crowder, the executive director of the Air and Marine Operations Center.
With security along land borders tightening up, experts say a maritime surveillance system could be key as illegal immigration and drug smuggling take to the oceans.