Military turns to 'Blimp in a Box' for surveillance

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James Bond had all kinds of gadgets hidden in his car (and clothing). Inspector Gadget seemed to pull anything out of his hat. Now the U.S. military has developed it’s own compact gadget, a surveillance blimp that fits in a box that can be loaded onto the back of a truck trailer.

World Surveillance Group Inc., based in the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was awarded a $605,000 contract for a “Blimp in a Box” from the Department of Defense. Glen Estrella, CEO of World Surveillance Group, told Discovery News that company has delivered two blimps to an Army base, and in the next few months the military will decide whether it wants more.

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The blimp can be inflated and launched in 15 minutes. Estrella said it is tough enough to be dropped from a plane into the field and the box will fit a standard-issue military trailer. It’s maximum altitude is about 2,000 feet, providing line of sight communications up to 30 miles away using whatever equipment the user wants to put on it, be it infrared cameras or communications gear.

Ordinarily, when a military unit wants to set up surveillance, they have to build a short mast or tower, and that takes time. It also can’t be more than a couple of hundred feet high. That doesn’t allow for a very wide-ranging view– perhaps a mile or a bit more in very flat land. Getting as high as 2,000 feet pushes the horizon back a long way.

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The blimp itself consists of two layers. One holds the helium, and the other is a tough canvas. Estrella said while it is vulnerable as it is rising, at 2,000 feet it wouldn’t be an easy target for small arms fire – an expert sniper might be able to hit it, but not very often. Even then it wouldn’t empty out like the toy balloons kids play with because the helium inside is not under pressure.

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It’s not just for the military. “You could use it for pipeline monitoring or extra security at the World Cup,” Estrella said. It would also be useful in disaster areas, where the normal communications networks are down. Non-military models are also cheaper, about $100,000 as opposed to $300,000.

Estrella said the idea was to build on the success of aerostats, otherwise known as tethered balloons, as opposed to airships. The military has funded several programs to build rigid airships, but so far none has successfully deployed. Aerostats, on the other hand, have been used by various military forces for decades.