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Tucson tech could eye border from on high

Anchored within proposals for a new national immigration policy is a call for more high-tech security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Parts of that technology could be developed and tested at the University of Arizona's Science and Technology Park.

Southeast of Tucson, the UA Tech Park is home to DRS Technologies, a subsidiary of the Italian defense company Finmeccania, which rents lab space and a four-acre parcel of land just across Interstate 10.

There the company has constructed an 80-foot tower, bristling with sensors including electro-optical and infrared cameras, an infrared laser, and a radar that can identify and track people within a 7.5-mile radius from the tower. The system is solar-powered, relying on a large solar array which shades a cargo container of batteries and equipment.

The tower is a prototype designed to win a contract to replace the ill-fated SBInet (Secure Border Initiative) project, which was struck down by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in 2011. SBInet was wracked by cost overruns, technical failures, and problems with local terrain.

During a Feb. 19 town hall in Southern Arizona, U.S. Sen. John McCain called SBInet a "$787 million debacle."

The new program will include 50 towers placed along the U.S.-Mexico border at total cost of $91.8 million.

The UA Tech Park has pushed for this kind technology through a new plan called the Border Technology Evaluation Center or Border TEC. This dovetails with a program already at the university, the Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Border Security and Immigration, or BORDERS.

As Bruce Wright, the associate vice president for University Research Parks notes, the UA Tech Park is ideal for this kind of research. "We have 40-50 acres of undeveloped land between us and our neighbors and the terrain is really ideal to test this technology."

"Obviously living in Tucson, which I think is on the border, we confront these issues of security and trade very personally," said Wright. "We have been working four or five years to advance technology for border management, operations, and security."

The tech park is designed to help companies integrate their technology with other companies, test ideas, and develop markets for the technology among U.S. companies.

"About four years ago, we wrote a grant with the DHS to build UA's BORDERS group and we've been proactively developing this technology," said Wright. "We can locate companies at the research park and if they want to enter the U.S. market, we can place a company in a position to do so with expertise in technology and market access."

Wright notes that for some companies the border technology angle may not be obvious, noting that Darling Geomatics, a company that built laser-scanning equipment to create 3D landscape models could also develop their technology to describe tunnels along the border.

"There's a dual application in the security field," he said.

He estimates the world market for border technologies to be worth about $19 billion.

Molly Gilbert, director of community engagement for the UA Office of University Research Parks, has identified 57 Southern Arizona companies and around 2,000 in the United States that already working on some aspect of border technology and she expects that market to grow in the coming years.

"What gives us a competitive edge is our efforts to provide the faciliates and the place to test this technology, but also the faculty to test and demonstrate this equipment," said Gilbert. "We're really trying to ramp up the technology and infrastructure and help us grow this market as well."

DRS Technologies demonstrated the tower to media and local officials on March 1, including a live-demonstration that showed the system's ability to track two men in the desert carrying large backpacks, an analogue for drug smugglers.

The company's executive director of DHS and Force Protection Systems, James Hynes, hopes this demonstration allow the company to beat competing bids. "We can detect activity using our radar which will allow an operator at the command and control station to put the camera on that target and see who's there."

Should DRS Technologies win, the company would grow from three full-time employees to 40-50, Hynes said. DRS Technologies is now selling similar systems to Egypt and Jordan.

In February, Gov. Jan Brewer pushed hard for new border technology efforts, saying. "We need more, probably a little, more fencing, a lot more fencing, in the areas where it would be productive," Brewer said, "UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the air, more technology."

McCain also made the same argument. "We also need to use and implement the technology that we developed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The use of drones, the use of sensors, the use of what my old military friends will know as situational awareness," he said.

"You can surveil the entire border with this kind of technology and when you see it penetrated, you can put people out there to stop or apprehend or deter them," McCain said.

Though federal budget sequestration could dent the new tower program's funding, Wright think the UA Tech Park's efforts will endure federal cuts.

"This market is much bigger than the federal government," he said. "This tech can be used privately to protect airports, tech parks, there's a huge international market."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Sean Pender describes DRS Technologies' entry into a competition for the construction of 50 towers along the border. A test tower is on a site near the University of Arizona Tech Park, where DRS and a number of other companies are operating labs to design and test new technology for border enforcement.