National Politics

This Fort Worth company says tech keeps the U.S.-Mexico border safe

Officials at a Fort Worth company that already uses high-tech towers to monitor 200 miles of unpopulated border in Arizona for illegal crossings say they’re eager to expand the technology to Texas, New Mexico and California.

Since 2015, Elbit Systems of America, a U.S. subsidiary of an Israeli defense contractor that operates in a non-descript building in northwest Fort Worth, has built and operated 55 border towers under a $145 million contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

On Wednesday, a day after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address that addressed border security, officials at Elbit Systems offered visitors a tour of their facility to look at some of their alternatives to a physical barrier.

In Arizona, the 80- to 120-foot towers feature radar that detects motion along the border, and cameras that can zoom in — and determine within seconds whether the motion is caused by a human, animal or vehicle. If necessary, a Border Patrol agent can then be dispatched to investigate the cause of the motion.

“They’re able to determine, are individuals carrying backpacks, which might be an indication of drug loads, or are they carrying weapons, which might indicate a higher level of threat,” said Gordon Kesting, vice president of homeland security for Elbit Systems of America, which for decades has operated as a defense contractor in northwest Fort Worth.

The camera towers are meant to complement the roughly 700 miles of existing border barriers in urban areas such as El Paso, where Trump plans to hold a rally Monday to drum up support for a border wall. The towers are not meant as a wall replacement, said Bob Edmonds, Elbit systems vice president for marketing.

Joel Friederich, a vice president with Fort Worth-based Elbit Systems of America, shows how the company’s border surveillance towers are managed in a simulated control room. Gordon Dickson

The Border Patrol has requested expansion of the camera tower system, Edmonds said. He declined to specify how much a tower camera system would cost for the rest of the border.

But generally, based upon how much the tower cameras in Arizona have cost per-mile, it appears that the entire length of U.S. Mexico border not currently protected by a physical wall (about 1,300 miles) would be just under $1 billion.

That’s far less than the $5.7 billion Trump is seeking from Congress for border security.

Elbit Systems of America can trace its Fort Worth history back several decades. It was spun off from General Dynamics, when that company sold its avionics to Lockheed Martin in 1993.

The company has about 1,600 employees across North America, about half of whom work in the Fort Worth area, a company official said.

It’s not the first Fort Worth company to offer technology as an alternative to a wall.

In 2017, a privately held local company known as Williams RDM demonstrated a system of portable sensors that could be placed along areas of the border with rough terrain, at a fraction of the cost of a wall.

About 80 percent of Elbit Systems of America’s work involves defense, Homeland Security and other law enforcement programs. The company also builds and operates medical equipment.

Elbit Systems also helped develop the pilot helmets for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program. The helmet is known for its next-generation features, including giving pilots a view of the entire battlefield through their visor.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.