Agents in Texas recently finished a 30-day trial of the camera-toting, helium-filled balloon made by Drone Aviation Holding Corp., a small startup that named former Border Patrol chief David Aguilar to its board of directors in January. The 3-year-old, money-losing company gave Aguilar stock options that may prove lucrative if it gets more orders for its proprietary model. The trial comes as agents test hand-launched drones, which are relatively inexpensive but hampered by short battery life and weight limits. The Border Patrol has also used six large tethered balloons in Texas since 2012, acquired from the Defense Department. President Trump has pledged to add 5,000 Border Patrol agents, but hiring has been slow.
Six states will act as a testing ground for a new wave of balloon-based surveillance beacons which are backed by the U.S. military. Documents filed with the FCC and obtained by The Guardian detail an initiative to launch up to 25 unmanned solar balloons that will rove 250 miles across the central U.S. According to the documents, they will '[c]onduct high altitude... tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.' Tests will be conducted by US Southern Command (Southcom), an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. The Guardian reports that balloons are equipped with sensitive radar technology capable of tracking vehicles through inclement weather and during both day and night. According to the report, one radar device is capable of capturing the motion of every car in a 25-mile radius. The breadth of the surveillance will allow the military to track where vehicles come from, essentially'rewinding the tape' on people's movements according to one expert interview by the outlet.
It's a brisk December morning at Spaceport Tucson, America's premiere (only?) dedicated launch pad for stratospheric balloons, and a small army of technicians in reflective vests is milling around on the concrete and dethawing after a long, cold night. Nearby, a white metal tripod the size of a smart car is tethered to two dozen solar panels and hundreds of feet of clear plastic that stretches across the pad. This alien-looking contraption is referred to as a "stratollite," a portmanteau of "stratospheric satellite," operated by a company called World View Enterprises. It's a finely honed surveillance device outfitted with a suite of sensors and a camera sensitive enough to detect people standing on the ground from the edge of space. The stratollite travels by virtue of two balloons, one filled with helium to provide lift, and the other with pressurized air, which functions as a steering system.
The U.S. Border Patrol is considering another type of surveillance balloon that can be quickly moved to spot illegal activity, part of an effort to see if more eyes in the sky translate to fewer illegal crossings. Agents in Texas recently finished a 30-day trial of the camera-toting, helium-filled balloon made by Drone Aviation Holding Corp., a small startup that named former Border Patrol chief David Aguilar to its board of directors in January. The 3-year-old, money-losing company gave Aguilar options that may prove lucrative if it gets more orders for its proprietary model. The tethered balloon, called Winch Aerostat Small Platform, or WASP. The trial comes as agents test hand-launched drones, which are relatively inexpensive but hampered by short battery life and weight limits.
Stratospheric balloons are a low-cost way to get above 99% of the atmosphere. Payloads lifted that high have wide views of Earth and clear views of the stars. For decades, NASA has launched a handful of stratospheric balloons every year. Although they float for months, they drift at constant altitudes. Now, upstart commercial companies like World View are launching smaller balloons that can remain in place by surfing stratospheric winds.