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New Border Technology Contracts, Part Two
New Border Technology Contracts, Part Two

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AIR DATE: September 11, 2013

by Jude Joffe-Block

Imagine this scenario. An intruder hops a fence and starts to walk in a forbidden zone. Instantly, a camera senses his movement, spins around to record him, and detects he is a human, not wildlife.

An alarm would alert agents back at a command center. They would get video of the intruder and his geo coordinates. As it turns out, a Phoenix-based company, Pure Tech Systems, makes software that does exactly this. Larry Bowe is the company president.

“You’ll notice that as the target moves, this person, the camera is panning, tilting and zooming simultaneously to keep him in the center of the image,” says Bowe.  

Bowe’s software isn’t being used at the border. But he wants to be ready in case there is a future need. Other companies are also getting ready-- mostly huge defense contractors but also small niche companies that specialize in things like thermal imaging, or laser-based sensors that detect when fences are being tampered with. Some make products you never would think of.

Paul Chiba works for an Escondido-based company called Brief Relief. They make sanitary baggies with chemicals inside to neutralize odors and prevent the spread of bacteria. One of their main customers has been the military, out in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. But Chiba says if there are more boots on the ground in the Southwest border region...

“After a while they are going to have to use a restroom at some point or another, and our products are perfect for that,” says Chiba.

It’s immigration reform negotiations in Washington that are driving hopes for new spending on the border. At a recent town hall, Arizona’s Senator Jeff Flake explained that when he and others were working on the technology provisions of the Senate’s immigration bill, they went to the heads of each border sector and asked: “What technology do you need, what manpower, what infrastructure. And they gave us a punch list: here is what we need to achieve 90 percent effectiveness. And that is in the legislation.”

The list in the Senate bill is surprisingly specific, naming over 25 categories of technology, and the exact number of units for each sector. For example, the San Diego sector would get precisely 393 ground sensors, 41 remote video surveillance systems, and 1 radiation detector, among other things.

One businessman who has high hopes of such a tech-heavy bill passing is Laurie Pane, he works in the Burbank, California office of a company called Grabba, Inc that is a subsidiary of an Australian company.

“If the funding for extra border security gets passed, we can expect orders in the range of several million dollars to be placed with us. That is our expectation,” says Pane.

Grabba makes a gadget that lets law enforcement use smartphones or tablets to check IDs, passports and fingerprints. It’s already being used by some border patrol agents.

“They can go into a vehicle such as a bus and check all of the passengers on the bus without the passengers having to leave the bus,” says Pane.

If the federal government ups its order -- and there is no guarantee they will-- Pane claims his company will start manufacturing the devices here in the US, which could create domestic jobs.

“It will and can be a really big game changer for us,” says Pane.

And a border security boost would come at a good time for many of these companies used to high levels of defense spending. Thad Bingel is a Washington-based consultant who previously was chief of staff at Customs and Border Protection. 

“Many of the companies who in the last decade relied on that spending, who developed great new technologies for applications overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan, they are looking for a customer to replace that,” says Bingle.  

Of course, to many, bringing these new technologies developed for the military in war zones, is a frightening prospect. And there is significant push-back, not just from border residents, but from some members of Congress who are reluctant to spend billions more on border enforcement.

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