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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the Defense Department is bracing for billions of dollars in budget cuts. That has defense contractors looking for new markets. Homeland Security is one promising market, particularly border security where there are no big cuts looming.

Companies are lining up in hopes of landing a contract, as NPR's Ted Robbins found at a border security trade show in Phoenix.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: There's enough surveillance equipment on the floor of the Phoenix Convention Center to spot a federal appropriation from five miles away. The Border Security Expo has aerial drones, radio monitors, heat sensing goggles, even a little blimp with a camera on it.

Bobbie Brown is standing in front of what he calls a sensor suite.

BOBBIE BROWN: A night imaging camera, which means you can look into the darkness as though it's daylight, and then a daylight camera for daylight hours. And then on top of it is a radar, a ground surveillance radar.

ROBBINS: Brown works for Telephonics Corporation - a subsidiary of Boeing. His company already has similar towers along the border, but Bobbie Brown is anxious about an upcoming contract to sell Customs and Border Protection more this year.

BROWN: That's a $1.6 billion potential award.

ROBBINS: Billion. Billion with a B.

BROWN: Yes, and I take heartburn medicine every time I think about it.

ROBBINS: Maybe that's because cuts at the Pentagon make the civilian market more important. DHS has about $4 billion to spend on technology, this year alone. Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher is at the expo scrutinizing the products.

MIKE FISHER: So that me and my staff can actually sit around and make the right decisions for the American tax dollars that, you know, are really critical, and it's also critical to our border security mission.

ROBBINS: Other countries, such as Canada and Mexico, have representatives here. So do police departments inside the U.S. They hope to take advantage of technology developed for war. Jackie Hoover shows me a field unit which intercepts and records all radio traffic within a 20-mile radius.

JACKIE HOOVER: So we have them over, actually, in Afghanistan. We've got 35 of them set up permanently. And then the different military has them - military branches.

ROBBINS: On the border it'd be used to track drug and people smugglers. Andrea Groves and Ubaid Tocki show me Raytheon's Trans Talk mobile phone app. It directly translates languages. They are developing an English to Spanish version. Right now it works with Arabic and Pashto.

ANDREA GROVES: Do you have electricity and water?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE APP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do you like to sit in water?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ROBBINS: The app got it right the second time. If there's a trend at the show, it's unmanned aerial vehicles: drones. Dave Sliwa from Insitu, another Boeing subsidiary, shows me the 40-pound Night Eagle.

DAVE SLIWA: It's made to fly very silently and so it can observe things from very close range without being observed itself.

ROBBINS: The government sees drones as a cost effective way to patrol the border. And new models are much cheaper than they used to be, which is one reason defense analyst Loren Thompson says this technology transfer is a good thing.

LOREN THOMPSON: Any time the government can find broader applications for a technology developed primarily for military purposes, it's saving tax payers money, and it's being more efficient in the broader economy.

ROBBINS: The bigger question is whether in an era of massive budget deficits the government is getting its money's worth buying this technology at all. DHS has been criticized for years for not having clear goals or adequately measuring whether it's meeting them. The agency says it hopes to have a more accurate metric - a measurement of border security - sometime this year. Meanwhile, the checkbook's open.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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