Blimps, they’re the next big thing in homeland security.
That’s okay, a lot of people do, says George Spyrou, president of Airship
Management Services, whose blimps are leased to the likes of Fuji Film and have
been used as air surveillance and security platforms by the New York Police
Department, the U.S. Secret Service and the Athens police during last year’s
summer Olympic Games.
Although blimps have proven their worth in various security environments from
the Super Bowl to presidential conventions, the huge airships aren’t widely
deployed because they suffer from bad public relations.
“It’s a perception problem going right back to the Hindenburg disaster
when she blew up in 1937,” Spyrou said. “The perception is that
an airship is unsafe." But that's not true, he says. "They are filled
with helium, not hydrogen.”
“And then there’s the ‘giggle factor.’ People think
it’s just a balloon or it’s great over the Super Bowl, but not as
a serious tool for homeland security… it’s viewed as sort of a slow,
you know, balloon.”
Those perceptions are no joke to airship manufacturers and to military and
federal agencies that have been looking at reviving their use. Airship advocates
say they are cheaper than satellites and more feasible as long term surveillance
Unmanned aerial vehicles, from airships to stationary balloons--called aerostats—have
a long history of use by the military. The most well-established lighter-than-air
program now in use is a series of aerostats along the southern U.S. border.
These 208 foot long balloons resemble mini-blimps without the gondola. Unmanned,
they are unblinking eyes-in-the-sky used for drug interdiction. They are able
to detect targets out to 230 miles and stay aloft for months.
The war on terrorism has been a god-send for unmanned aerial vehicle deployment.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq employ more than 14 types of remote controlled
vehicles, from the deadly Predator, which can fire a Hellfire missile, to the
four-pound, hand launched Raven used by the Army for over-the-hill recon missions.
UAV’s in Iraq and Afghanistan have flown more than 100,000 hours.
Now, the Department of Defense plans to spend $1.7 billion in research
and development on 79 projects through 2009 for UAV development, including developing
a six-ounce “micro” flying vehicle called WASP. Some of those technologies
will eventually transfer to the civil sector, particularly for use in homeland
“DoD is helping civil authorities recognize opportunities to leverage
our considerable investment in research, development, test, and evaluation to
address critical homeland security technology needs,” said Peter Verga,
deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security. Among the technology
transfers is DoD assistance to the Coast Guard to evaluate “high-altitude,
long-endurance lighter than air ships” for conducting wide area surveillance
to “detect, identify and track vessels of interest,” Verga said.
The Air National Guard has suggested using airships domestically to create
500-mile “buffer zones” offshore. “These approaches to our
mainland do not have the level of real-time surveillance we believe is required
to detect and interdict threats,” Maj. General John Love told a congressional
panel last year.
The DoD’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap, released earlier this month,
notes that the Department of Homeland Security is evaluating several UAV, as
well for border security, Coast Guard and maritime missions, transportation
security and protection of critical infrastructure.
Meanwhile backers of traditional airships insist that blimps can be deployed
more cost effectively and efficiently than some methods currently being used.
“With an airship you can hover and vector people in,”
said Nicholas Susner, CEO of Science & Technology, International, a Hawaii-based
defense contractor that has put on several real world airship demonstrations
for federal, state and local officials. “A helicopter can only
stay on station for a short period of time,” Susner noted. “With
an airship we can stay on station for 24 hours and not lose sight of something,
which is extraordinarily important.”
Airships are a “very benign presence,” Spyrou said, noting how
quiet they are. “People see it but it doesn’t really intrude, it’s
just the Goodyear blimp or the Fuji blimp, it’s ‘hiding in plain
sight’ as New York Police Department officials like to say,” he
Beyond the perception problem, cost is a hurdle, despite the fact that an airship
is about 24 times less expensive than operating a helicopter, the current choice
of aerial surveillance for state and local law enforcement, according to Susner.
And compared to satellites, which can cost $150 million or more, Spyrou said
his company leases blimps for $350,000 to $400,000 per month.
While ordinary airships operate about 1,500 feet above the ground and can cruise
at about 5,000 feet maximum, researchers at Purdue University are looking at
creating an airship intended to fly about 65,000 feet, well above commercial
These super blimps would have better surveillance capabilities than
satellites because of their proximity to the ground and because they would be
unmanned they could remain in operation for up to a year, the Purdue
researchers said. But fuel and durability of the airship’s “skin”
are still engineering hurdles, the researchers acknowledged. The work is being
funded by the Air Force.
Although no design for the blimps has been finalized, the researchers say it
may be up to 900 feet long, that’s about four times the length of the