Elevating With Helium

Elevating With Helium

Managing security at the border might have aerial implications

It is well known airships had a more limited role in the late 20th century, following the Hindenburg tragedy that coincided with tremendous innovation in fixed-wing and passenger aviation. However, the airship and its tethered cousin, the aerostat, are poised to fly much higher in the 21st century thanks largely to recent lighter-than-air (LTA) aircraft and materials innovation, and driven largely by geopolitical instability and the need for better threat detection, vigilant security and rapid response coordination.

Increased non-combat domestic security challenges, efficient critical infrastructure monitoring/survey, and bolstered civilian protection at major events are each expected to drive increased use of LTA platforms even amid a proliferation of fixed-wing and rotary UAVs. Why? LTA aircraft and systems are an increasingly attractive alternative, especially for professionals challenged by longer mission duration (vigilant/ persistent) and/or fiscal constraints. This is virtually SOP for those serving in border security around the world. Don’t be surprised how much helium elevates border and domestic security in the 21st century.

Helium, and the LTA assets it fills, may have been given only a passing thought by many global security professionals and operators when examining border challenges and border security enhancement in years past. However, this looks to be changing. It is a reasonable expectation that LTA aircraft will be utilized in much more U.S. and global border missions in the near future. LTA aircraft language can now be seen within the FY2016 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill, having undergone full committee mark-up. The Congressional Committee has directed the Custom and Border Patrol’s Office of Air Management (OAM) to investigate use and integration of commercially available services/aircraft to complement existing border surveillance assets on the basis of feasibility and cost effectiveness.


Late last year Cem Dewilde authored an estimate that the Global Border Security market “was valued at $16.4 billion in 2015, as high-demand for border protection and surveillance continues.” The report summarized that “Global trends such as an increased amount of refugee movements, continuing operations by international criminal organizations and a resurgent political will to secure national borders have all come together to drive strong growth in the border security market for years to come.”

While security managers are aware of the benefits of elevated or airborne systems for enhanced threat detection, ISR effectiveness, or extending communications transmission, LTA and elevated systems are too often overlooked. Managers either don’t understand recent LTA advancements and capabilities, or don’t understand the cost advantages that can be realized, especially for persistent “eye in the sky” missions. Today’s modern airships are highly mobile, flexible, quiet and stable elevated sensor platforms, presenting extended timeon- station and other advantages when delivering 360° perspective of the air and ground environment.

Border security professionals readily appreciate the capabilities of fullyequipped fixed wing and rotary ISR aircraft, but not the significant manpower and acquisition/ sustaining costs associated with their flight operations. While drones offer numerous opportunities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) applications, there are instances in which drones are not practical because their costs, or limited payloads that can’t accommodate the required surveillance equipment, because they can’t stay in the air long enough to accomplish vigilant missions, or because of unresolved regulatory or safety requirements.

ISTAR-enabled military drones are also highly capable but costly, and often inappropriate politically for domestic border or urban security missions. Meanwhile smaller commercial UAVs are growing in terms of popularity and capability, but typically present SWaP (size, weight and power) challenges rendering limited airborne support for border security.

Amid these challenges, LTA assets are increasingly valuable for delivering actionable ISR intelligence and security efficiency, for their rapid deployment and unique flight capabilities, and for elevated cost efficiency for persistent missions. Like other aircraft, LTA assets can elevate radar, imaging systems, communications equipment and other sensory technologies that extend their range line of sight (LOS), integrating with other systems when relaying intelligence or communications data.

LTA systems are particularly appropriate for bolstering border security for professionals like the CBP in the United States in three main areas, while helping to address operational shortcomings and cost overruns stemming from use of UAV aircraft domestically. They include: observation and detection capability (ISR), capable of documenting chain of custody from interdiction until adjudication, where needed; Panga boat detection and tracking for interdiction support efficiency and existing asset relief; and ultra-light aircraft detection and designation, where appropriate.

On territorial borders, airships can aid with detecting and tracking air and surface vessels supporting interdiction, delivering high quality video with recording (documentation) capability, and providing regional monitoring and imaging capability with long duration, in part from the unique flight characteristics of LTA platforms. They can integrate advanced radar systems, high definition multispectral imaging (electro-optics, thermal imaging) electronic intelligence, communications equipment or other payloads up to one ton.

This provides long range threat detection and situational awareness from an aerial perspective, day and night, and enables signals intelligence (communications, electronic, traffic analysis), all from a vehicle that is remarkably landing site efficient. The airship provides near vertical takeoff and landing performance through incorporation of directionally controlled engines (vectoring propulsion).

Flexible and multi-purpose, airships also have an increasing role to play in maritime border security, enhancing cost efficiency of littoral border patrol, and search and rescue assistance outside the harbor as well as security and operational support in port.

With maritime border security challenges ranging from counter-piracy operations, to preventing the transport of illegal goods and human trafficking, embargo operations to port security, and protection of territorial waters and fisheries, LTA platforms better ensure annual flight hours, mission success and fiscal acuity for defenders of coastal borders.

Airships will increase visual and sensor search ranges of surface vessels offshore, for more cost-effective standing patrols and vigilant security (force multiplication), or extended piracy monitoring and mitigation (vessel protection) capability. They can help coordinate observation and appropriate response for a variety of missions from anti-terrorism, to smuggling interdiction and loss prevention, helping to counter seaborne threats and interdict narcotics smugglers. For example, airships can loiter along coasts to detect and identify panga boats, micro subs and other traffic, relaying to surface assets their location, size, speed, and direction. They can also support extending UAS/USV system operations.

In and around ports, an airship or tethered LTA system (aerostat) can support area intrusion detection and loss prevention, and may enhance operations efficiency. And, if required, modern airships could deliver visibility and asset vulnerability advantages as the UUV compliment for ASW and MCM missions at sea. Airships can tow submerged sonar or optic arrays and reposition rapidly between listening positions, replacing more expensive marine assets as the umbilical connected parent in areas of uncontested airspace.

Larger operational class aerostats with re-locatable integrated mooring stations, like airships, would offer flexibility in aiding ULAD or ultra-light aircraft detection with mobile radar, while complimenting the existing tethered aerostat radar system (TARS) currently in place. Smaller tactical aerostats offer extended range and potentially significant manpower efficiency for agent portable surveillance systems.

With a better understanding of why and how LTA assets are likely to elevate border and domestic security in the 21st century, let’s now explore the different manned and unmanned elevated system capabilities by looking at the recent product development within the industry through one of its most innovative developers:


Current generation airships like those manufactured by Aeros’ NADATS division (Aeros) in Southern California have been re-designed to deliver much more than aerial advertising and broadcast support. An airship’s speed, mobile range and sensory/communication payload accommodation create an efficient and highly vigilant intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) platform that can be used to enhance border security over land and sea. It also offers longer time on station and slow and low flight capability, and over border observation capability, while delivering:

  • Air and ground target identification and tracking, using airborne radar with GMTI.
  • Vigilant high-definition multi-spectral imaging (HD EO/IR) and wide-area reconnaissance (ISR) capability, with video data dissemination and/or documentation.
  • Communications/ data relay or monitoring— with real-time Intel/data distributed securely across the domain to area air and ground assets.
  • Counter UAS / target designation, radar detection and designation with stabilized Lightweight Laser Designator Rangefinder (LLDR).

Aeros’ prior airship variants have successfully aided smuggling interdiction missions by identifying and documenting clandestine night beach drop locations, as well as the highly coordinated but separate activities of organized criminals and their contraband. The airships’ near-silent operations and on-scene duration capability were key players in the success of the mission.


Unmanned and tethered, aerostats are aerodynamic lighter-than-air platforms that provide ISR support like a low-flying satellite system, but are much cheaper to launch and operate, providing a constant eye in the sky that can protect or inform other air and ground personnel on the border. Aerostats can stay aloft for weeks at a time through difficult weather before brief maintenance interruption, compared to hours associated with aircraft requiring aerodynamic lift.

The stationary, resilient capability of aerostats can deliver persistent, wide-area situational awareness where UAV solutions have disappointed. Aerostats are ideal for mission surveillance when either rapid deployment or persistent monitoring for days, weeks, or months or years may be required.

In comparison, the Predator B drones now used on the U.S. border were supposed to be airborne for 16 hours a day; however, a late 2014 DHS report showed that the aircraft were only airborne for about 3.5 days on average in 2013, and concluded that OAM should reconsider the planned expansion of the program and instead invest in manned aircraft and ground surveillance alternatives. The audit estimated it cost $12,255 per flight hour to operate the program, and that the CBP’s calculation of $2,468 per flight hour does not include all operating costs.

These cost-related flight hour constraints aren’t present with aerostats. These scalable systems have been designed for turnkey aerial surveillance, requiring minimum setup and training to deliver robust monitoring capabilities. Smaller tactical aerostat’s rapid deployment capability, simple operation, wi-fi downlink, and extended life cycle with low maintenance have proven highly effective in enhancing mission success security and operational flexibility in OCONUS expeditionary environments.

They are easily monitored from a laptop control unit (LCU), and systems simplify dedicated wide-area visual observation, data acquisition, and communications support. Aeros also integrates sensory technologies to create elevated, ground-based systems for enhanced manpower and cost efficiency.


The government of Ukraine and Aeros are now working together to strengthen wide area situational awareness capability for the border protection agency of Ukraine, delivering enhanced capabilities for persistent air and surface surveillance and target tracking/identification with ground-based elevated early warning systems (EEWS).

EEWS is an integrated border surveillance system with expanded capabilities for persistent air and surface surveillance and target tracking/ identification, while addressing mission duration and cost efficiency. The system can detect aircraft, vehicles, personnel and UAVs operating within the air and surface environments, and incorporates advanced radar technologies from Selex ES, and imaging technology from FLIR to track and identify sea, air and land-based vehicles. The EEWS systems integrate numerous sensor packages including AESA radar with ground-moving target indication (GMTI) capability, electro-optic and infrared HD imaging system, and geo-locating moving map software for empowerment and simplified use by operators.


Tactical towers are elevated, groundbased systems that provide the benefits of extended elevated perspective with the lowest possible operating costs for smaller payloads. These elevated systems can deliver needed situational awareness along the border for long duration, supporting evidence collection for prosecution.

Designed for easy assembly and rapid relocation as threat perceptions or needs change, they feature a scalable design and simplified ground assembly, and can carry 90Kg payloads to 11 meters, 68Kg payloads to 18 meters or 45Kg to 29 meters. They are scalable to different heights, can endure almost any weather, and assemble quickly on the ground with minimal personnel before rotating vertically. While capable of elevating military ISTAR technology, towers are most likely to support HD imaging, CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition/ OCR, communications and/or acoustic monitoring systems for border enforcement staff.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Security Today.

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