The U.S. Customs Service stepped up its war against drug traffickers yesterday by awarding two local companies a $100 million contract to make blimps designed to detect the movements of smugglers in the air, on land and at sea.
The contract awarded to the Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group in Linthicum and TCOM L. P. in Columbia is the largest awardedby the agency and contains options that could boost its value to $170 million.
The contract calls for the development of four blimps with radar systems to be used as part of an "electronic picket fence" that provides virtually unbroken coverage along the nation's southern border, Westinghouse said.
Each system is made up of a helium-filled blimp -- about the size of the Goodyear airship -- capable of hoisting a 3,000-pound radar systemto about 15,000 feet. The blimp is held in position by a cable anchored to the ground.
The radar aboard a blimp can look down and spot from as far away as 160 miles low-flying planes that might slip past radar units on the ground. Those ground units might detect planes only up to about 20 miles away, Westinghouse has said.
The airborne radar also can follow the movements of boats, cars and trucks.
Yesterday's award was for making four systems, including ground control equipment. The contract has options for three more systems and spare parts.
The new blimps, scheduled to join 11 operated by the Department of Defense, are expected to further reduce drug smuggling into the country by closing key surveillance gaps.
Westinghouse will be the prime contractor for the program, called Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems, and will provide radar for each craft.
TCOM Corp., which started as a subsidiary of Westinghouse, will build the blimps. Formed in Baltimore in 1971 as the Tethered Aerostat Systems Division, it has built more than 50 of the tethered aircraft.
Westinghouse sold the blimp unit in 1989 to a limited partnership formed by Manufacturers Hanover Corp., a New York-based bank holding company, and Craig Capital Corp., a private investment company.
Although the craft are designed and engineered at thcompany's headquarters in Columbia, they are built at Elizabeth City, N.C., not far from where the Wright brothers' made their first flight, said Tom Huhn, a TCOM spokesman.
Westinghouse and TCOM officials said the new contract is not expected to result in new hiring but that it will help maintain employment levels at each company.
Westinghouse has about 9,000 employees at its huge complex adjacent to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. TCOM has about 200 employees in Columbia.
James J. Bitoni, president and chief executive of TCOM, said the teaming of the two companies provides the Department of Defense and the Customs Service with "the most reliable surveillance platform, as well as the most effective radar available for this mission."
The blimps are designed for 24-hour-a-day operation for as long as 30 consecutive days.