Monday, August 4, 2014

Forget drones: These tethered blimps can spy on cities below

Meet the "Blimp in a Box," recently purchased by an Ohio public agency. 

Patrolling the skies these days is hard. There are so many options to choose from: traditional helicopters, new wide-angle surveillance planes, and even the more cutting-edge drones. 

Each of these options has its drawbacks. Beyond the initial purchase price, well-tested helicopters typically cost at least hundreds of dollars per hour to send up. One-off surveillance planes are also not cheap, coming in at around $1,000 per hour. Drones, while very cheap, are problematic. Law enforcement needs a blanket Certificates of Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and possibly a specific Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) each time a drone is used above 400 feet.

Enter a small Florida company now attempting to make snooping from the air both cheap and administratively easy. The Drone Aviation Holding Corporation (DAHC) recently announced that it had sold its second-ever “Blimp in a Box” for local law enforcement purposes.

The Ohio Department of Transportation (DOT), which spent $180,000 on the blimp, did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

These tethered blimps—formally known as aerostats—don’t move on their own. They're allowed by the FAA as a “moored balloon” if they stay below 500 feet and meet other minor restrictions. The company said that similar tethered drones (which would require FAA approval) are also on their way.

The Blimp in a Box has a “day's-duration flight time," an infrared sensor, and video cameras, according to the company’s marketing materials. The device is designed to aid with surveillance, enhance situational awareness, and help with “communications research.” For years, this type of inflatable spy technology has been sold to the military for ISR (intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance) missions, but only more recently has it come home to roost.

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