Blimp floats over Dixie in disaster telecom test

Today's standard response to Katrina-like catastrophes that wipe out telecommunications infrastructure relies on a 7th Cavalry-like rescue mission by trucks laden with high-tech satellite communications equipment.


But today in Alabama, as part of a wider state homeland security response exercise, state and federal officials have been testing blimps to provide a backup infrastructure when normal telecom infrastructure services collapse.


During the early morning hours of April 7 at Redstone Arsenal, a team of officials from several agencies lofted a 70-foot-long aerostat equipped with a camera and Wi-Fi transmitter to an altitude of 3,000 feet.


Their plans call for the blimp to hover steadily, except for nightly downtime, until mid-day Thursday. During the test, personnel from Alabama's Homeland Security Department as well as members of the state's Air and Army National Guard and the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) will test their disaster coordination plans.


The blimp comes from an SMDC project aimed at creating high-altitude, long-endurance platforms for surveillance and communications.


The airship project supports two missions: providing high-resolution imagery to ground installations and restoring communications to areas where natural or man-made disasters have disabled existing telecom facilities.


Alabama in particular relies on high-resolution images to harmonize emergency-response agencies' activities through its 'Virtual Alabama' program, according to Norven Goddard, Alabama Homeland Security's assistant director for science and technology.


The Army's SMDC has assigned Goddard to help the state agency via temporary duty posting. Normally, Goddard works at the Army's Future Warfare Center.


Virtual Alabama mashes up information from maps, air-surveillance photos and government databases to generate statewide data provided via a Web app that facilitates user searches.


In Alabama, 'everybody wants to see the scene immediately, and they want to continue to see it in real time,' Goddard said in a phone interview.


Goddard added that 'bandwidth is always expensive and you never have enough of it.'


Remote-sensing platforms orbiting the Earth can't provide all the information needed for response and recovery, he said. Satellite imagery is both expensive and spotty, as a result of cloud cover and the gaps resulting from the birds' orbits.


By contrast, the lazily circling aerostat's 360-degree camera covers a 60-mile radius. The blimp's Wi-Fi transmitter supports wireless communications across a 20-mile-long bubble, Goddard said.


The lighter-than air vehicle also could carry a transmitter for cell phone traffic, said Philip Ardire, president of Western DataCom. His company carried out systems integration for the Alabama aerostat payload.


'It's a low-cost, low-orbiting satellite, is the way we look at it,' Ardire said.


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