Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is There a Surveillance Aerostat in Your Future?

According to Wikipedia, an aerostat is, "a craft that remains aloft primarily through the use of buoyant lighter than air gases, which impart lift to a vehicle with nearly the same overall density as air. Aerostats include free balloons, airships, and moored balloons." After United States Coast Guard efforts to detect low-flying drug runners validated proof of concept for modern era designs during the early 1980's, eight surveillance aerostats were subsequently deployed as part of the U.S.-Mexico border security initiative in the 1990's.  Then, starting about 2003, surveillance aerostat use expanded significantly when they were added to the skies over 50 plus U.S. installations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Assigned the acronym of RAID, or Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment, these latest generation "observation blimps" have been successful at providing commanders with site-specific, 24/7, "eye-in-the-sky" imaging surveillance, thereby significantly improving the ability of U.S. forces to anticipate and respond to localized threats.  Based on these results, for the past couple of years manufacturers have been approaching civil authorities in the United States and other NATO countries about aerostat use for emergency preparedness and response, law enforcement, and crowd management.  Results have been mixed  - including a successful demonstration event at the Indianapolis 500 in 2009, investigative efforts by the U.S. Geological Survey, and a determination by Manchester, UK Police that the concept was unworkable because of regional meteorological conditions. To learn more, use any of the links below to read background documents, or watch the embedded video.

Comment: As noted above, to date the aerostat surveillance concept has had very limited success moving into the civilian market  - with only a few manufactures like SkyDoc Systems actively targeting the sector.  However, the concept of civilian sector use will not be going away. Unfortunately, it will just be dormant, waiting for the day when a major disaster could have been stopped (man-made), or response results improved (natural), by use of a comprehensive area surveillance system.  

Lead photo credit: Manchester Evening News

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