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May 28th 2015, 10:07

Ballooning Surveillance

Timothy Compston finds out why aerostats are making their mark in the on-going battle to secure borders and critical infrastructure from a wide array of threats and to thwart drugs smugglers on land and sea


Craig Laws, senior product manager at Raven Aerostar, another aerostat manufacturer with a strong track record here, agreed aerostats can deliver exceptional operational capability. “For any kind of sensor you would put on a tower, [but] you would like to have higher, an aerostat is a good option,” he said. The same holds true for sensors you might like to deploy on an aircraft or UAV but want to keep airborne for as long as possible, he added: “With aerostats you don’t really have to fuel them; you just need to make sure that you have lifting gas [usually helium].”

When assessing which aerostat meets a particular customer’s mission requirements, Laws advised that it usually depends on what the end user actually wants to monitor. “Do they need a camera?” he asked. “Do they need radar? Do they need both? Do they want to put a communications relay on-board as well? Once we can build that payload package it allows us to size the aerostat, as payload weight is the most critical factor.” Advances in sensor technology are also helping to keep a lid on payload weight, so there is the option to downsize the aerostat, stay aloft longer, or fly higher. “You can get almost the same performance out of a ten-inch [camera] gimbal as a 15-inch gimbal a few years ago,” said Laws. Another factor is the altitude at which the user wishes to fly the aerostat, with smaller systems typically flying up tot 3,000 feet above the ground, and larger systems reaching 6,000 feet.

Typical systems range from smaller, “tactical” platforms through mid-sized “responsive” options up to “enduring” models. For smaller tactical systems, Laws explained, the benefit is mobility. “They are great because they are small,” he said. “You don’t need to carry great quantities of  helium with you. You can put them in the back of a truck, take them where you want and inflate them without a large logistics train. Probably two to three people are sufficient.”

Law added that, on balance, it is the mid-range “responsive” systems which are the most versatile. “They are a great match for current technology,” he argued. “Our 25,000 cubic feet balloon is a workhorse with a payload normally around 300lb; for practical purposes you can put a small radar and a 15-inch camera on that. This is the model we sent to Afghanistan back in 2010/2011.” A mid-range aerostat can normally has an aerial endurance of around 14 days, with larger, enduring models able to stay up for around 30 days.

The clear message is that aerostats have demonstrated their worth when it comes to detecting suspicious activity in and around borders and pushing back against drugs smuggling on the land, in the air, and at sea. For agencies that may have dismissed aerostats out of hand in the past, or perhaps never even considered them, perhaps now is good time for a reassessment of what tactical and strategic aerostats can actually offer.

SOURCE: Intersec - The Journal of International Security