Sunday, July 27, 2008

Blimp surveys for smugglers in Florida Straits

Blimp surveys for smugglers in Florida Straits
9 hours ago

MIAMI (AFP) — A mainstay at sporting events and rock concerts, an
airship once used to survey mass revelry on land is currently scanning
the open waters of the Florida straits for drug smugglers and illegal

The 197-foot (60-meter) Skyship 600 blimp, adorned with a US flag where
it once wore an advertisement for Fuji Film, is part of a joint US Navy
and Coast Guard pilot program to introduce airships to their
surveillance of the straits.

The blimp, leased by the US government at a cost of 1.6 million dollars
for the six-week trial, is equipped with radar, infrared cameras and
other sensors to help vessels at sea track boats smuggling illegal
migrants or drugs in the waters separating the tip of Florida and Cuba
some 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.

It also is being tested as a means of aiding in search-and-rescue
missions and hunting down environmental rule breakers.

The project, which kicked off on July 4, has yielded positive results,
according to Coast Guard officials at Naval Air Station Key West, the
blimp's home for the duration of the six-week program testing its
efficacy in surveying the seas.

"So far we are very happy with the results we are getting," said Coast
Guard spokesman Ensign Matthew Meinhold, noting the blimp has been in
the air almost every day since its initial launch.

Meinhold noted one of the advantages of using a blimp to scan the ocean
as opposed to conventional fixed-wing airships or helicopters is the
extended amount of time a blimp can remain in the air.

The Skyship 600 can fly 16-hour missions at 3,000 feet (914 meters)
while burning only 10 gallons (38 liters) of fuel per hour. However
missions usually last about eight hours, said the ensign.

Meanwhile, the Navy's P3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, commonly used
in the straits, burns between 600 and 700 gallons (2,270 and 2,650
liters) of fuel per hour and flies significantly shorter missions.

"Our maritime domain awareness is improving" with the use of the blimp,
said Meinhold.

Considering the Coast Guard in Key West is responsible for patrolling
55,000 square miles (142,449 square kilometers) of sea, any effort to
improve the view of that region is welcome, he added.

The blimp's powerful cameras can monitor activity on ships with large
decks or open cockpits and even read the names of some of the larger

So far, the blimp has helped track down at least one vessel used for
smuggling migrants from Cuba. According to Coast Guard officials, 26
Cuban migrants were found at sea July 12 with help of the airship.

The boatpeople were interdicted by the Coast Guard after being alerted
by their new overhead surveillance partner and eventually repatriated to

The blimp does have its drawbacks, being that it is much slower than
fixed-wing airships and helicopters, clocking a maximum speed of 57
miles per hour (92 kilometers per hour), preventing it from tracking
faster-moving smaller vessels.

George Spyrou, president of Airship Management Services, the company
leasing the blimp to the government, said the advantages of blimp
surveillance far outweigh its limitations, noting that other governments
have purchased blimps for use by the military.

In 1993, the British government purchased one of his company's blimps
for surveillance over Belfast during a period of heightened tensions in
Northern Ireland.

Closer to Florida, the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is
using the sister vessel of the Skyship 600 to "monitor criminal
activity" both on and off-shore, said Spyrou.

The US government has yet to commit to contracting the Airship blimp
beyond the six-week test run.

"I think they need to analyze the results of the trial first," he said.

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