Former wartime blimp refitted for border surveillance

Drones aren’t the only unmanned military aircraft returning from overseas to find civilian duty. Customs and Border Protection has begun testing used Defense Department tethered blimps for surveillance along the Texas-Mexico border, the agency announced.

The blimps, officially known as aerostats, had been used by the DOD for surveillance in Afghanistan. The tests were backed by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and are occurring in Rio Grande Valley.

"One of my highest priorities in Congress is to connect existing DOD resources with present needs along the southwest border to help make sure that we aren't letting anything go to waste. During these difficult times of limited budgets, cooperation and coordination between government agencies is especially important, and I thank CBP and DOD for working together," said Cuellar in a release.

CBP earlier this year conducted another test of aerostats along the border, part of a larger effort to test various technologies for border surveillance, CBP said.

“CBP is working closely with [the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate] to evaluate technologies against a wide range of land and maritime border threats. Efforts include testbeds on the northern and southern borders to evaluate border tripwires, acoustic sensors to detect ultralights, and air-based wide-area surveillance sensors,” according to written testimony submitted by the agency to a House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security hearing in June.

The agency’s efforts to use unmanned aircraft have had their ups and downs. In May, DHS’s Inspector General called CBP on the carpet for poor planning in its unmanned program and advised CBP to stop buying drones until it corrected the problem.

Earlier tests in Arizona used technology from Raven Aerostar, provider of the aerostats; L-3 Communications, provider of a sensor (L-3 Wescam) attached to the aerostat, similar to a camera; and Logos Technologies, provider of a second sensor (Kestrel) that operates in conjunction with the L-3 Wescam. The Kestrel sensor is capable of immediately scanning a wide area, increasing the likelihood of detecting small targets.

Aerostats have been employed for years by agencies for various monitoring purposes, whether using cameras, sensors or sohphisticated radar. An Air Force 2010 fact sheet on its Tethered Aerostat Radar System -- which is also used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for wind observations -- noted that the system consists of four major parts: the aerostat and airborne support equipment. the radar payload, the tether and winch system and the ground station. The primary purpose of the program is to support the DOD’s counterdrug program.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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