view counter

Border securityU.S. testing blimps, surveillance towers on Mexican border

Published 28 August 2012

Last year, the U.S. government ended SBInet, a major and unsuccessful attempt to build a virtual fence along the border that cost nearly $1 billion before it was killed; DHS is now testing aerostats, and an 80-foot tower with similar surveillance capabilities, for border security as part of an effort to exploit technologies that have been used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The U.S. Border Patrol is testing two blimp-shaped helium-filled balloons, which are on loan from the defense department, on the Mexican border. Congressional staff members joined DHS and Defense Department officials last Wednesday near the border town of Roma, about 260 miles south of San Antonio, to see what the aerostats can do. Members of the media were given a more limited glimpse of the devices’ capabilities.

The technology has already proven successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now U.S. officials think the blimps could be helpful in tracking drug smugglers and illegal immigrants on a rugged stretch of the Rio Grande that does not have a border fence.

The Huffington Post reports that the two aerostats vary in length, as one is about 55 feet and the other is 72 feet. At the altitude the long balloon was at, it was small but visible. Operators work inside a windowless shipping container, with three banks of video monitors scan the area, zoom in on vehicles, switch to an infrared view, and pick up vehicles moving through a parking lot.

Border Patrol spokesman Henry Mendiola thinks that the balloons can add a level of surveillance to an area that uses only manpower.

Especially in this area upriver from La Joya where we have no infrastructure, we have no technology,” Mendiola told the Huffington Post. “Everything down here is still being done by boots on the ground, and so this type of technology would make our job a little more efficient.”

The 72-foot aerostat can stay in the air for at least fourteen days, and while it is not as swift or mobile as a plane or helicopter, it is far less expensive to run and its cameras can see distances far beyond the alternatives.

Since the testing began 10 August, the balloons have already assisted agents patrolling the area. “We have seen some successes off of the aerostat in the testing phase,” Mendiola said, declining to give details.

Last year, the U.S. government ended SBInet, a major and unsuccessful attempt to build a virtual fence along the border that cost nearly $1 billion before it was killed. The aerostats, and an 80-foot tower with similar surveillance capabilities also being tested at the border, are part of an effort by DHS to exploit technologies that have been used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This technology that was being used in the war on terror can now help with the war on drugs, helping the United States at home as well as abroad.