Tucson's Strongwatch looking to ride border-security wave

2013-11-20T00:00:00Z 2014-06-17T17:56:02Z Tucson's Strongwatch looking to ride border-security waveArizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

If you’re trying to sneak into a secure area, and you suddenly see a laser light pattern shining on your chest, what would you do?

Tucson-based Strongwatch and its customers are betting you’ll turn tail and run.

Laser “targeting” for intrusion deterrence is just one of the unique capabilities of security systems made by Strongwatch, a small Tucson company that is making big moves in the growing market for advanced surveillance technologies.

The 5-year-old company — which recently won an Arizona gubernatorial award for small-business innovation — has developed mobile surveillance camera systems that take human detection to a new level of sophistication and affordability, says Mike Powell, Strongwatch chairman and CEO.

Strongwatch’s mobile “Freedom on the Move” systems — which can collect data on the move as well as sitting still — are deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border by about a dozen enforcement and counterterrorism agencies, including a system used by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Powell said.

And the company is angling for new business, with a new, stationary surveillance system aimed at commercial users and a partnership with defense giant General Dynamics to vie for a mobile border security system out for bid by the Department of Homeland Security.

While the laser-targeting feature is an intriguing deterrent option, the main value of the company’s system lies in its ability to detect and distinguish human presence like no other, Powell said.

The technology was adapted from video-analysis technology developed by a startup company Powell worked with in the 1990s while working for McKenna Capital, an investment and development firm founded by legendary Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna.

“It was using sensors that could look over various scenes and ascertain context from those scenes, not with a human’s participation but purely from algorithms and processes,” Powell said.

Like other surveillance systems, the Strongwatch system uses visible-light and heat-activated infrared camera imaging. But the company’s patented software allows it to precisely detect human movement, eliminating false positives that effectively limit the usability of other systems.

“You don’t want to have every jackrabbit that enters the scene to set that alarm off, or they (users) just turn the alarm off,” he said.

Powell, who moved to Tucson in 1987, teamed up with Andy Griffis, a Ph.D. electrical engineer who had developed the video-analytics software, to form StrongWatch in 2008.

Besides its advanced image discrimination capabilities, the Strongwatch system uses an uncooled infrared seeker — eliminating costly cooling equipment while using advanced controls to create clear images, Powell said.

Costs vary, but a typical military-grade surveillance system could cost $350,000, while a comparably sized Strongwatch system with more capabilities would cost about $150,000.

In 2009, Strongwatch partnered with FLIR Systems, a major imaging technology company, to build a surveillance system for the U.S. Army. A small number of units — Powell declined to say how many — were deployed to Afghanistan. But with the war winding down, an expected multimillion-dollar production order never materialized, Powell said.

Undaunted, Strongwatch turned to border-security and commercial surveillance markets, focusing partly on critical infrastructure like power plants.

Besides placing a number of mobile systems with border and law-enforcement agencies, the company has also developed a new, stationary “Freedom 360” surveillance system. A pilot system was recently installed at a 20-megawatt solar-energy array in Florence, in cooperation with “pioneering partner” Iberdrola Renewables, Powell said.

Powell said he expects the company to grow as business ramps up.

Today, Strongwatch employs 13 people, including Powell and Griffis, the company’s chief scientific officer. Other key executives are Mark Howell, a University of Arizona engineering grad and chief technology officer; and David Nicol, president and chief operating officer. The privately held company has been funded by private investors and management, which own about 60 percent of the company, Powell said.

Strongwatch got a financial boost in June, when it was one of six companies awarded $250,000 grants under the Arizona Commerce Authority’s Innovation Challenge.

And last week, Strongwatch won the Small Business Innovation award of the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation, sponsored by the Arizona Commerce Authority and the Arizona Technology Council.

Powell said he was somewhat shocked and humbled by the honor, which didn’t carry a cash prize.

“It meant an awful lot — this is really heavy lifting we have to do in this company, and that governor’s nomination alone was wind under our wings to help us through some of the tough moments,” he said.

Alex Rodriguez, Southern Arizona director of the Tech Council, noted that Strongwatch is one of many companies in Arizona focusing on border-security technologies.

Others include Darling Geomatics, NP Photonics, SAIC, Raytheon, Anteon, IBM and DRS Technologies.

DRS, which opened an office earlier this year at the UA Science and Technology Park, is vying for a new border security system expected to include 50 tower-mounted systems along the border with Mexico. An earlier system built by Boeing Co. at a cost of about $1 billion was abandoned after it was plagued with glitches.

“Border technology is definitely of interest; it’s an ongoing, consuming issue,” Rodriguez said, noting that the stalled immigration-reform bill that passed out of the U.S. Senate last year included billions of dollars for border security initiatives.

Strongwatch is teamed with General Dynamics to compete for a Homeland Security contract for mobile surveillance systems potentially worth $50 million.

“It’s a big deal — it’s essentially the first major opportunity for our technology to serve national security on the border,” Powell said.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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