Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expects to give its first blessing this month to a new fixed surveillance tower system that that has been installed in one area of Arizona by prime contractor Elbit Systems [ESLT] for security along the border with Mexico.

The first set of towers and sensors that make up the Integrated Fixed Tower (IFT) system has been up and running in Nogales for two weeks and is in use by the Border Patrol, Mark Borkowski, the assistant commissioner of CBP for the Office of Technology Integration and Acquisition, told reporters in a briefing on Monday. Once CBP completes systems acceptance testing, it will take ownership of the system, and then the Border Patrol will conduct limited user testing for the next few months, he said.

The Border Patrol for several weeks has been using the IFT system in Nogales, allowing Borkowski and the contractor to get a handle on what the users like and don’t like so issues can be wrung out before it is accepted, he says.

If the limited user testing is successful, the IFT system will be turned over to the Border Patrol and CBP will then turn to negotiating a follow-on task order with Elbit to deploy another set of towers and sensors in a new Area of Responsibility (AOR), which will be Douglass, Ariz., Borkowski said.

The current schedule calls for the chief of the Border Patrol to give Borkowski an answer by the end of November on whether the IFT system is ready, he said. Currently, there are only minor issues with the system and most of the acceptance testing is done, and Borkowski doesn’t see any showstoppers, although he cautioned that ultimately it is the Border Patrol’s call.

In 2014, CBP awarded Elbit a potential nine-year, $145.3 million contract for the IFT system and related operations and maintenance for deployment to six AORs in Arizona. Currently, CBP only has funding for four of the deployments, including two on the Tohono O’odham Nation, which are a priority for the Border Patrol but are still subject to completing negotiations with the Indians, Borkowski said.

If the four AORs are built out as scheduled, that will happen by the end of 2017 and cost about $75 million, including some of the initial O&M dollars, Borkowski says. The cost for the first AOR is $23 million and the second about $16 million, he says.

The IFT program is about two years behind schedule due to several factors. One was a deliberate effort by Borkowski to slow the front end of the process down to make sure requirements and planning was understood. Another factor was a bevy of bids that was unexpected and took a while to assess. Finally, after Elbit won the contract, Raytheon [RTN] successfully protested although in the end CBP awarded the bid again to Elbit, which is based in Israel and is working through its Texas-based EFW subsidiary on the program.

Once the contract was re-awarded to Elbit, Borkowski says the company is “pretty much” on schedule in terms of deploying towers and sensors in Nogales and doing its own testing.  

Borkowski says that beyond the planned deployments in Arizona, there are potential deployments ahead in New Mexico and even one or two in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas. He points out that the Border Patrol generally prefers camera type systems, including the Mobile Video Surveillance System (MVSS) and the Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS). He says the radars on the IFT systems aren’t effective in most areas of the Rio Grande Valley given the foliage found in that region. The Border Patrol is also using tactical surveillance aerostats in the Rio Grand Valley area.

The IFT systems consist of day/night cameras and ground radars on the fixed towers. Elbit is using cameras from FLIR Systems [FLIR] and radar from Elta Systems, which is part of Israel Aerospace Industries. The systems are used to locate and identify illegal activity in select areas between ports of entry.

There are typically between six and eight IFT surveillance and communications towers in each AOR. The towers send surveillance data to Border Patrol stations but are not networked beyond these stations. Borkowski also says that data from other sensors, such as unattended ground sensors and RVSS that comes into the Border Patrol stations isn’t integrated with the IFT data.

Currently, as data is viewed from various sensors, Border Patrol agents manually hand off from one sensor feed to another based on the inputs they are receiving, Borkowski says. This method of operating sensors is “effective,” and will give the Border Patrol time to figure out what level of future integration they may want, he adds.

The day/night camera RVSS system is being supplied by General Dynamics [GD] under a $100 million contract for deployment in Arizona. Borkowski says that by late summer 2016 the RVSS system in Arizona will be fully deployed.

CBP is doing environmental studies for the use of RVSS systems in South Texas under the current contract with GD, Borkowski says.

A $50 million contract for the night-camera MVSS system was awarded to Mistral, Inc., although the award was protested. Borkowski says instead of waiting for the protests to be resolved he is addressing the issues lodged by two companies and expects to render a decision this month. The contract with Mistral was “frozen” pending results of the review, he says.

The Border Patrol currently operates the Mobile Surveillance Capability, which includes a mast-mounted day/night camera system and a radar. Like the MVSS system, the MSC sensor data isn’t networked to a Border Patrol station and instead is kept local inside the truck. FLIR Systems [FLIR] supplies the MSC.

The Border Patrol is also operating with 15 tripod-mounted Agent Portable Surveillance Systems, which include radars and cameras. These systems are popular for having a low profile, allowing for more covert uses, but it takes four to six agents to “lug them around” so the Border Patrol wants CBP to work with the vendor community to make them easier to use, he says.

The IFT program grew out of the terminated Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBINet, which was developed by Boeing [BA]. The SBINet system is deployed along 53 miles of border in Arizona and Borkowski says within several months of operations illegal activity in these areas was nearly “shut down.”

SBINet was terminated for several reasons, including high costs—nearly $1 billion spent—and because the Border Patrol decided it didn’t need such a system across the entire southwest border. Instead, CBP has been buying other cameras, radars and other sensors that have been deployed in various areas where certain technology makes better sense to use than other technology, Borkowski said.