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Viewing Threats From High Above to Save Lives

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For the last two decades, a large aerostat balloon maintained by the U.S. Air Force has rivaled Castle Dome as a fixed point of reference over the southern portion of Yuma Proving Ground’s (YPG) range. Providing an important link in the "radar fence" along the international border that detects drug-smuggling airplanes, the same principle has been applied to supporting American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Motorists travelling the isolated stretch of Highway 95 that passes through the northernmost section of YPG may be treated to the site of several more white blimps floating high above the desert floor. They look quaint and placid as they hover, but are being rigorously prepared for action overseas.

Persistent Ground Surveillance Systems (PGSS) marry the most cutting-edge, high-tech detection sensors to an inexpensive platform: an ordinary blimp. The moored lighter-than-air craft float as high as 3000 feet above the ground, lofting a sensor suite that allows ground controllers to continuously monitor a huge swath of land. It is 70 feet long and 25 feet in diameter while deployed, yet deflated it folds like a large tarp and fits inside a 4 foot by 4 foot case.

"It’s a 24-hour eye in the sky," explained Shawn Greene, test officer in charge of the evaluation. "These aerostats can stay up longer and use less energy than other manned and unmanned aircraft."

After success with the similar Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS), which overlooks cities and large installations, the Army was interested in fielding a scaled-down, less-expensive system suitable for smaller forward operating bases. The inflated PGSS is slightly more than a third the size of the largest PTDS aerostat.

"This technology is smaller and considerably cheaper," said Greene. "It was not designed to compete with PTDS, but to supplement it."

The aerostat is inflated with helium, which is stored in long multi-container tanker trucks and delivered to the aerostat’s inflatable envelope by means of an ordinary looking hose. While in use, the aerostat is tethered to an armature on a long, portable mooring trailer. To prevent wind gusts from putting stress on the tether, the armature gently revolves in a strong breeze, rotating the entire aerostat. The blimp is raised and lowered with a winch.

The aerostats are at YPG for integration of sophisticated sensors and, ultimately, acceptance testing. During the evaluation, the sensor suite will be subjected to the presence of various military and civilian vehicles and simulated insurgents with firearms, small artillery and explosives. Live fire will be used to test acoustical sensors. The tests will also measure for more mundane, but still important, aspects of the system, such as ensuring that the sensors meet strict weight criteria.

"Potentially we’ll have three sites here, all of which will be utilized for acceptance testing and training," said Greene. "As soon as they’re done at YPG, they’ll be deployed to various points around the world."

Despite its relative ease of use, deploying the craft is a job for half a dozen people, all of whom need to learn proper procedures. As testing progresses at YPG, teams of contractors who will ultimately be deployed overseas will receive realistic training, down to the presence of a mock forward operating base constructed for the test. They will learn how to inflate the craft, run the winch, operate the advanced detection sensors from their ground-based monitor station, and much more.

For their part, YPG testers involved with the project are excited by the system’s capabilities and applications in theater.

"This system is another tool for the warfighter to bring to bear," said test officer Kevin Coulter. "The more eyes on the ground, the better off you are."

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