The University of Arizona's Science and Technology Park hopes to parlay its partnership with the U.S. arm of an international defense systems giant into a role as a testing and evaluation center for border security technologies.
DRS Technologies Inc. has set up a test laboratory at UA Tech Park where it can take advantage of the area's climate and terrain and the engineering and scientific expertise at the UA, said Richard S. Danforth, president of its Integrated Defense Systems and Services Group.
On Tech Park land just south of Interstate 10, it has built a prototype of the border surveillance towers it hopes to sell to the Department of Homeland Security. It hopes to win a competition with other large defense contractors to build 50 of the towers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It showed them off Friday to media and local officials at a networking reception and technology showcase held by UA Tech Park.
The towers cover an area with a 7.5-mile radius with radar, infrared and electro-optical cameras that can detect movement of people and vehicles and characterize their activities.
The company has built and operated similar systems in Egypt and Jordan.
For now, the company, a subsidiary of Italy-based Finmeccanica, has three full-time employees in Tucson, but 15 to 25 rotate through, said James Hynes, executive director of the company's DHS & Force Protection Programs.
The full-time force would increase to 40 to 50 if DRS wins a contract for the towers, Hynes said.
It would also mean a boost for Tucson-based International Towers Inc., which would manufacture the towers locally, said its vice president, Ed Marue.
Hynes said DRS plans to stay and grow its testing and evaluation center in Tucson even if fails to get the tower contract.
The climate and terrain are a match for regions where it already deploys force-protection and border security systems, he said.
David Welsh, executive vice president of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO), said the Tech Park's plan aims at a "nice, niche technology" that could soften the economic blow to the region when the federal government cuts back on defense spending in the coming years. "Everybody knows it's going to shrink," he said.
The UA Tech Park plan is called the Border Technology Evaluation Center, or Border TEC.
"Southern Arizona could be a leading center in the world for development of border technology," said Bruce Wright, UA associate vice president for university research parks.
The Tech Park proposes to become a laboratory for "third party" testing and evaluation of border technologies, in much the same way it tests and evaluates solar technologies in its "Solar Zone."
It would draw on the university's expertise in engineering, optics, computing and other sciences.
Molly Gilbert, director of community engagement for the UA Office of University Research Parks, said she has already identified 57 Southern Arizona companies that are engaged in border security. Six programs, including the UA's Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Border Security and Immigration (BORDERS), were represented at Friday's showcase.
Border security is a critical ingredient in the free flow of goods, people and services on the U.S.-Mexico border, Wright said. Its aim, in addition to detecting disease and stopping the illicit flow of people, drugs, guns and cash, should be efficient trade and freer movement for legal purposes, he said.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.