PHOENIX – 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 that he is human, not wildlife.
An alarm would alert agents back at a command center. They would get video of the intruder and his geographic coordinates.
As it turns out, a Phoenix-based company, PureTech Systems, makes software that does exactly this.
"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," said company president Larry Bowe as he demonstrated his software at his office.
Bowe’s product isn’t being used at the border. But he is keeping a close eye on potential new opportunities there.
So are other companies, mostly huge defense contractors but also small niche companies. Some make products you never would think of.
Paul Chiba of the Escondido, Calif.-based company, Brief Relief, describe his products as “a pee bag or a poo bag.”
Brief Relief makes sanitary baggies with chemicals inside to neutralize odors and prevent the spread of bacteria. One of their main customers has been the military, using the baggies in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But if more Border Patrol agents are sent to remote stretches of the Southwest border region, that could create potential demand.
“After a while they are going to have to use a restroom at some point or another,” Chiba said. “And our products are perfect for that.”
Major military contractors are vying right now for current border equipment contracts estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And immigration reform negotiations in Washington are driving industry hopes for even more border spending in the future. The Senate’s immigration bill would add an additional $46 billion for border enforcement.
At a recent town hall, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) explained the bill’s drafters went to the heads of each border sector to ask what they needed.
“What new technology do you need, what manpower, what infrastructure,” Flake said. “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.
It names more than 25 categories of technology, and the exact number of units to be purchased at each sector.
For example. the San Diego Sector would get precisely 393 ground sensors and 41 remote video surveillance systems, among other items. The bill also calls for four new drones for use along the border.
One businessman who has high hopes of such a tech-heavy bill passing is Laurie Pane. He works in the Burbank, Calif. office of Grabba, Inc. – which 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,” Pane said. “That is our expectation.”
Grabba makes a gadget that lets law enforcement use smart phones 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,” Pane said.
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 U.S., which could create domestic jobs.
“It will and can be a really big game changer for us,” Pane said.
And a border security boost would come at a good time for companies that are accustomed to high levels of defense spending. Thad Bingel is a Washington-based security consultant with Command Consulting Group who previously worked 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,” Bingel said.
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.