Surveillance Blimps and Drones on Border Patrol

In the late 19th century, zeppelins were thought of as the flying machines of the future. Though time and a well-publicized explosion may have quelled those ambitious predictions, blimps and drones are once again poised for their moment in the spotlight, this time as the next wave of domestic surveillance platforms employed by the U.S. government.

Congress has already ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into American airspace by 2015. In fact, UAVs like the Kestrel surveillance blimp have already been tested at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kestrel, the latest state-of-the-art surveillance system, is able to monitor and record an astonishing 70-square-mile area day or night and piece all video feeds together into a single live image that that can be manipulated and enhanced like any standard surveillance camera. The video system can also be tied to other signal intelligence eavesdropping equipment, enabling it to lock onto people using certain devices such as radios and cell phones, and match those signals with a large database of other information.

Kestrel works with one rotating camera that is constantly surveying the landscape below, and six complementary cameras capable of capturing higher-resolution images if the rotating camera catches something of interest (presumably areas of greater motion). Say, for example, a child is abducted in a parking lot hundreds of feet below. Operators can use the information Kestrel has scanned, punch in the time and coordinates of the abduction and recover a high-resolution image of the kidnapper and his vehicle.

While images of unmanned drones and blimps scouring the American landscape may bring up broader questions about governmental intrusion on our everyday lives, these flying machines could be the answer to protecting U.S. borders without the need for massive law enforcement manpower or an expensive, environmentally disastrous border fence. However, if the U.S. government attempts to deploy this technology in American cities, we can only imagine the pushback they’ll get from those who feel that domestic surveillance is already too invasive.

(Via Popular Mechanics)

About the author  ⁄ Erik Helin

Erik is BrickHouse Security's copy chief. Hailing from the Midwest (Wisconsin), Erik moved to NYC in 2010, securing a job at BrickHouse shortly thereafter. Outside of work he writes about music, does freelance advertising work, and wastes his life on the internet. Aside from no-brainers like cheese and beer, Erik enjoys music, travel, TV, his cat, and Brooklyn.

    With the recent FAA approval of domestic drone use over the USA, Homeland Security and local police utilizing FLIR enabled drones for day-to-day law enforcement (arresting cattle ranchers, etc) and conducting warrantless thermal/IR/sensor searches of private property, serious civil rights issues are raised by domestic use of wide-area-persistent-surveillance systems. The specter of Blue Devil class drone blimps utilizing military SIGINT and ARGUS technology over US cities is hardly far-fetched, as the migration of military tech towards police-tech is observable in the examples above, as well as in multiple other signs of military urbanism.

    One primary example is the use of HAWKEYE over cities in the USA by PA police department among others since 2006.

    In Utah, a police drone blimp has already conducted domestic surveillance with the specific intent of chilling the behavior of witnesses on the ground, with the mayor commenting on how “people behave differently when they know they are being watched.” A city volunteer who watches security feeds (not vetted law-enforcement) recently commented how the Sandy City, Utah urban surveillance camera network, which views over 25% of all public spaces, is intended to eliminate citizens “amnomimnity”. The volunteer went on to cheer as a local skater was arrested for sneaking a beer into a water bottle. Now local police will be using military iris scanners and face recognition technology to ID US citizens. Local police are already discussing armed drones.

    The idea of a gigantic spy blimp over the USA that never blinks and is capable of watching an entire city, recording it, rewinding video in order to trace individuals, track behavior and record the free movement of a democratic society, suggests a serious chilling effect to political speech, activism, protests and freedom of assembly in the United States. The ARGUS, GORGON STARE and ANGELFIRE systems as well as Blue Devil and WAAPS systems in general are extremely volatile systems that need to be kept strictly in a non-Homeland Security, non-domestic, non-police arena for exclusive use OUTSIDE the USA. These technologies turned towards domestic security or police actions are an existential threat to personal liberty and a democratic society.

    Long endurance persistent surveillance drones have no place over the USA. The experience thus far of any country to allow drones to operate in its airspace has been overwhelmingly negative. Surveillance drones quickly creep into becoming armed assault vehicles. How long before Blue Devil is carrying a Hellfire missile “just in case” or it just deploys Switchblade ram drones to “secure” uncooperative drivers during a police chase?

    Maybe this sort of mission creep wont happen…but then again, one didn’t think that today a local cop would be flying a FLIR enabled hexacopter over residential neighborhood to check the house’s thermal signature…without a warrant.

    Maybe having a gigantic EYE of Sauron staring down at the Shire wont stop the terror….in fact, maybe that’s why there is a growing insurgency in the first place?

  • Erik

    That’s fascinating that there are so many examples of previously-used drone and blimp tech in domestic defense operations.

    Personally, I don’t see a major issue with drones collecting information on citizens. For the majority of people (who are emphatically anti-crime) I really don’t think it will matter, because it would cut down on noticeable gang activity, robberies, et al. Go about your life; you’ll most likely never show up on on any radar. I don’t think being caught on camera is going to put an end to political dissent or free speech and free assembly.

    The amount of privacy we already sacrifice digitally is much more chilling in my opinion. When I leave my apartment, 99% of the time I’m not breaking any laws (save for some jay-walking). When I’m in my apartment I’m also not breaking any laws, but I’m doing things that I’d prefer not to share with the outside world. That sounds like I’m doing a lot more litigious stuff than I am, but I’m also doing things that I’d like to be kept private (who I talk to, what I read, what I watch).

    Either way, we’re being tracked. Overt cases of tracking like blimps and drones may seem like a major overstep, but to me it doesn’t seem much different than traffic cams or security cameras that are on you almost everywhere you go anyway.


    Air force “INCIDENTAL” espionage argument is disingenuous, farcical at best. These systems use sensors like ARGUS and Persistics software and use automatic object recognition across 36 square miles to tack every moving object. Anywhere with a military base of any kind nearby would fall under this incidental surveillance. The video link below clearly illustrates that the retention and capability of WAPS to watch and track an entire city makes the claim of “incidental” absolutely farcical!

    First off, it has recently been revealed that the Air Force DOES have a domestic surveillance mission currently operating across the USA. They term it “INCIDENTAL” surveillance which is meant to take advantage of a legal loophole and claims that any surveillance collected does not need to be deleted and IS forwarded to the Counter-Terrorism center for aggregation and analysis. This rule states that the Air Force can retain and analyze “accidentally” captured surveillance footage from drones for up to 90 days.“persons or organizations reasonably believed to be engaged or about to engage, in international terrorist or international narcotics activities.”The document also explicitly says that the Pentagon can circulate the data to other intelligence and government agencies, should it determine it’s needed. “Even though information may not be collectible, it may be retained for the length of time necessary to transfer it to another DOD entity or government agency to whose function it pertains.”
    Second, It s completely disingenuous to even try and imply that any of the surveillance is “incidental” when the AF is parking a 24/7 ARGUS drone over the city and recording/ tracking everything. Wide Area Persistent Surveillance of any military facility covers at least a 36 square mile area and is automatically tracking all cars and people as well as recording and generating “tracklets”. ANY CITY WITH A MILITARY BASE NEARBY AND WAPS OVERHEAD IS UNDER VIRTUAL MILITARY OCCUPATION.
    Third, Blue Devil has already been marketed for use as a Homeland security platform by MAV 6 (who want missiles attached) for crowd control and domestic policing. Also, this technology has been specifically designed to fill a capability gap experienced by LOCAL police in cities like PA, LA, Cincinnati, columbus etc. all of whom have used the HAWKEYE system since 2006 for everyday law enforcement. They desperately want to put WAPS up 24/7 and they need a long endurance loitering drone in order to meet that capability. In fact, drone blimps since their conception have been intended for domestic policing. Examples include the drone blimp used in SLC and the multiple branches of military all building blimps, which as you noted, are only useful as overt surveillance in uncontested airspace against an unarmed civilian population who lack sophisticated weapons.
    The truth is, despite the disingenuous claims of “incidental surveillance,” anyone with common sense can see that there is a serious push to put 24/7 WAPS over cities in the USA mounted on spy blimps. After Mav6 strikes out with Navy, you can bet they are headed over to DHS, who has already been pursuing the Gorgon Stare for use domestically. Also, almost all the spy blimp contractors have marketed the DHS capability of their blimps.
    Spy blimps are meant to replace the WAPS HAWKEYE system mounted inside Cessna’s already being used against US citizens and make it a 24/7 an inexpensive platform for spying on Americans!


    Wide Area Airborn Surveillance: Opportunities and Challenges – Gerard Medioni

    Play video
    Wide Area Airborn Surveillance: Opportunities and Challenges – Gerard Medioni, University of Southern California A new generation of airborne sensors allows very large images (60M‐1G pixels) to be…
    Added on 8/15/11

    The second video is a shor clip showing how argus uses automatic object recognition and tracking using “tracklets” which would be a good video for your blog.

    DARPA Video and Image Retrieval and Analysis Tool (VIRAT)