|Thursday, August 07,
MANASSAS, Va. — The military
is looking to something old as a new weapon in the war on
blimps wouldn't be like those that hover over football
stadiums and concerts. These would be equipped with
cutting-edge sensors and high-resolution cameras that could
scour the landscape or oceans.
Think of it as a 200-foot-long eye in the
The Office of Naval Research
(search) is working with
Honolulu-based Science & Technology
International (search) to develop the idea.
From thousands of feet up, STI's advanced
optical sensor system can spot targets on the ground or deep
under water and then track their movements, said Stephen
Huett, ONR's project manager for the program.
Huett envisions the blimps policing U.S.
harbors to pinpoint terrorist divers, suspicious boats or
other unusual activity. They also could provide increased
surveillance at military bases or assist with border patrols,
The helium-filled airships have a number of
advantages over planes or helicopters. They're quiet and
smooth-riding, which is important for those monitoring the
high-tech equipment inside. They're also about 30 percent
cheaper to operate and can hover over a target anywhere from
12 hours to three days, Huett said.
The Navy contract is worth about $4
million, according to Huett.
Civil libertarians expressed concern that
the blimps will be another government tool that infringes on
"What is increasingly happening is people
are coming under routine surveillance without good cause,"
said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty
program at the American Civil Liberties Union (search). "It's no longer fanciful to talk
about a '1984'-like society."
An intelligence policy specialist at the
Federation of American Scientists, Steven Aftergood, said,
"People are going to behave differently even in their own back
yards if they know that someone may be watching."
Michael Greenberger, a law professor and
director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and
Homeland Security, said blimps could be an important addition
to homeland defense.
"This is not a substantial infringement and
is something that would be helpful," said Greenberger, who
worked in counterterrorism for the Justice Department during
the Clinton administration.
Blimps have been used by the military
before, including for anti-submarine patrols during World War
STI's blimp can travel up to 60 mph and fly
at an altitude of about 2,000-3,000 feet -- out of reach of
small arms fire, Huett said.
While they might seem like large targets
that aren't very stealthy, Huett said the blimps don't plummet
from the sky if punctured by gunfire.
"It's like attacking an elephant with a
fork. It's not easy to bring down," he said.
STI provided media demonstrations of the
sensor technology as well as blimp rides this week in
Manassas, Va. However, the 200-foot white blimp with a green
and blue STI logo was grounded for at least two days because
of mechanical problems.
The company's sensor technology is mounted
in a 30-foot gondola, where the six-person crew -- including
two pilots -- would sit during a surveillance mission.
From Virginia, the blimp will head to San
Diego for a four-month testing period.