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This Fort Worth company has a new concept for Trump’s border wall

Virtual Trump border wall pitched by Fort Worth defense contractor

A small Fort Worth company, WilliamsRDM, believes it can provide border security for a fraction of the cost of President Trump's proposed wall.
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A small Fort Worth company, WilliamsRDM, believes it can provide border security for a fraction of the cost of President Trump's proposed wall.

A small Fort Worth defense contractor believes it has a better idea for stopping illegal immigration and drug smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border: a virtual wall using computer technology and thousands of portable sensors.

Workers at WilliamsRDM, which sells everything from fire suppression devices to electronic parts for fighter planes and rocket launchers, say they are confident that their sensor system would work better than the physical border wall advocated by President Trump — for a fraction of the cost.

Depending upon how the sensor network was used, the total cost of installing WilliamsRDM’s system along the entire 1,954-mile length of the border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California could be about $300 million, company officials said. That’s a little more than 1 percent of the roughly $21.6 billion estimate for a brick-and-mortar wall, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

And a sensor system could potentially alleviate concerns that many Texans have about building a physical wall along the Rio Grande, including worries about massive flooding, loss of wildlife and the government seizure of private property.

“We just think it’s a much better solution than a wall,” said Maisel Klutts, WilliamsRDM’s director of engineering and planning. “That’s why we began pursuing it very diligently last year, and have made lots of progress and should have something able to deploy in the first quarter of next year as far as a viable product.”

New twist on old concept

WilliamsRDM’s project has been dubbed the START Sensor Network. START is an acronym for Sense, TARget Track.

It is by no means the first attempt to create an electronic wall for security purposes. Those efforts by the military and its contractors go back at least to the Vietnam War.

Larger defense contractors such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin also have elaborate sensor systems that can be deployed for a variety of enforcement scenarios.

But WilliamsRDM officials say what makes their plan better than previous efforts is the design of sensors they created in-house during the past year. The company says it has applied for a patent for its design, which includes multiple of layers of motion, infrared and other methods of detection.

Virtual Border Wall 03
Maisel Klutts, director of engineering and planning for Fort Worth defense contractor WilliamsRDM, displays virtual border wall prototype sensors May 30, 2017. WilliamsRDM has a patent pending for the design. Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

The egg-shaped sensors are not much bigger than a softball and lighter than a shotput, are built out of an impact-resistant urethane potting with weight on one end like toy Weebles, so that when they are dropped even from an aircraft they land upright. (Watch the 1970s TV commercial: “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down ...”)

Once the sensors have been tossed into place, they are powered by a small solar panel, which powers batteries designed to last at least four and possibly seven years. A proprietary combination of detectors inside each egg-shaped sensor is designed to identify motion, infrared light and heat and other pieces of evidence that human life is nearby.

The ‘START’ sensor system developed by Fort Worth-based WilliamsRDM can be built and installed along the U.S.-Mexico border for about $150,000 per mile, a little more than 1 percent of the estimated $21.6 billion cost of the Trump administration’s proposed brick-and-mortar wall.

The portable sensors would be dropped in an asymmetrical grid pattern, spread perhaps 100 yards apart or roughly 200 sensors per mile of border area. They would turn themselves on upon impacting the ground and send signals to a computer program.

Then they would wait for humans to cross their paths.

Sensors ‘talk’

Computer algorithms are used to determine what is being detected. In other words, the sensors are designed to know the difference between a human walking across a field and a wild animal foraging for food — or a pickup driving through an area versus a tree blowing in the wind.

The sensors then “talk” to each other and send data to computer software that can be used on essentially any device including laptops, tablets or smartphones. Whoever is monitoring the system — the Border Patrol, for example — can then watch for the information coming from the sensors to change colors if an intruder is detected.

I’ve got the best group of engineers. I’ve got the best employees.

Della Williams, WilliamsRDM founder

The sensors do have some vulnerabilities. For example, someone crossing the border illegally could come across a sensor and either pick it up off the ground and carry it away, or perhaps try to destroy it with a gunshot or by banging it against a rock. Or some sensors could inadvertently land upside down or perhaps in a shady area that limits their battery charging capability.

But even if a sensor is lost, the remaining sensors in the field can continue to communicate with each other. And, at a relatively low cost of $500 each, any lost or damaged sensors would be fairly easy to replace.

Also, if anyone were to walk away with a sensor, the motion would be detected by the computer software, theoretically making it possible for the Border Patrol or another agency to track the offender and retrieve the device.

Making the pitch

The company, formerly known as Williams-Pyro, has already shown its system to representatives from the acquisitions department of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and received encouraging feedback, chief executive officer Della Williams said.

WilliamsRDM is tiny compared to others in the defense industry, with only about 100 employees working out of a modest building west of downtown. But within that staff are about a dozen engineers who love to dream up gadgets that solve problems, and then build them at the company’s in-house machine shop.

“I’ve got the best group of engineers. I’ve got the best employees,” Williams said of her company, which she co-founded with her late husband in 1962. “I’m excited about what this does, and what it can do.”

The START Sensor Network began with WilliamsRDM employees using the knowledge they gained building sensors for fire detectors, and applying those principles to a whole new concept — border protection.

The concept has gained the attention of Republican Congresswoman Kay Granger, who represents Fort Worth. Granger has seen a demonstration of WilliamsRDM’s system and supports further study of it.

Granger, a former member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, has long advocated for tougher border security. She also has spoken in support of measures that preserve the export of goods from the United States to Mexico and Canada, and preservation of business relationships among those countries.

“I’ve always been a supporter of local businesses and the efforts of Della Williams and her team represent the kind of creative approach to solving tough challenges that make Fort Worth such a vibrant community,” Granger said in an email. “Securing the border is one of the largest challenges we face as a nation, so it’s great to see local businesses like WilliamsRDM putting forward creative solutions.”

Wall progress

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is whittling down its list of prospective companies to design a brick-and-mortar wall.

Weeks after taking office, Trump invited companies to apply as interested vendors for the project on the Federal Business Opportunities website. About 230 companies signed up, including at least four in the Fort Worth area. WilliamsRDM did not sign up on that particular list, company officials said.

Federal officials have said they planned to pick a dozen or so contractors from that list to build prototypes of their walls starting this month, although the companies are being asked not to discuss their selection publicly.

On Thursday, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of its intent to sue the Department of Homeland Security alleging that the planned construction of wall prototypes in southern California would harm endangered species, and that the government has not done the necessary environmental studies.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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