Tim Compston, Features Editor at Security News Desk and SecurityMiddleEast.com speaks to Matthew McNiel, Vice President of Business Development at TCOM - a global leader in this field - about why the deployment of aerostats for border protection, emergency management, and security applications is taking off.
With a wide array of aerial surveillance systems now available in the marketplace - including drones - the obvious question to put to TCOM’s McNiel, at the start our discussion, is what can tethered aerostats bring to the table over and above that available from other platforms? In response, McNiel stresses that the primary advantage aerostats provide centres on their ability to deliver a long duration on station: "This translates into substantial cost savings when contrasted with airborne assets such as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and manned aircraft. These systems typically remain on station for a matter of an hour, while aerostats remain on station for days." The upshot of this reality, reckons McNiel, is that to maintain 24/7 coverage multiple aircraft are required: "Generally, this results in a very high ‘op-tempo’ for the aircraft and requires even more assets to account for maintenance down time." By contrast he points out that a single aerostat can provide a 24/7 persistent on-station presence for, potentially, weeks at a time and also requires minimal downtime for maintenance.
Deterring Illegal Activity
Another factor which McNiel flags up in aerostats’ favour is the way that they offer the sort of deterrent effect not seen with other competing airborne surveillance platforms, citing the US border as a case in point: "For decades, strategic aerostats have surveilled the US southern border in support of anti-narcotics trafficking and illegal immigration, virtually eliminating small plane flights in the Southwest and fundamentally affecting “go-fast” boats in the Caribbean. This is due in part to the highly effective intelligence gathered by the on-board sensors, but also greatly influenced by the very obvious nature of the aerostat itself," says McNiel.
The Right Class
McNiel then goes into more detail on the classes of aerostat systems. He reports, for instance, that tactical aerostat systems - 12M, 17M, 22M and 28M - are basically multi-modal and ideal for deployment on land, to maritime domain awareness sites, or directly from a vessel at sea: "These aerostats can be assembled and deployed in just a few short hours, and manned by a minimal crew. The system can carry payloads including day/night EO/IR cameras, radars, communications relay and more." Beyond this, he reveals that with larger size aerostat systems - 22M, 28M - comes a greater capacity to allow 'operational class' systems to operate at higher altitudes for a greater surveillance range while, in addition, remaining aloft for up to two weeks at a time: "This ensures round-the-clock persistent surveillance for highly trafficked areas and maritime borders."
As we have witnessed terrorism becoming global, and borderless, McNiel reckons that the need to use effective ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) in maritime and land borders is becoming more and more of a strategic requirement: "Consider the scenario of a crowded port environment. An aerostat system, equipped with sensor payloads, is capable of monitoring the entire port area, for example, including activity at the water level because it is looking down from hundreds or thousands of feet above. The system can detect threats and provide leaders with actionable intelligence with a greater window of time to enable forces to intercept or engage," he explains.
McNiel adds that, as a result of this heightened threat level, TCOM is seeing growing interest in applications similar to the one that the vendor has fielded previously in Italy: "In this case, Italy turned to TCOM to deliver an affordable, persistent sea surveillance system that would provide comprehensive monitoring of the Otranto Strait and Italian coastline. The system, identified as SAACS (South Adriatic Aerostat Coastal Surveillance System), used a larger TCOM Tactical aerostat configured with a multi-mode search radar, a stabilized day/night camera suite and a V/UHF transceiver." In operation, McNiel says that the radar provided the early long-range detection and tracking of smugglers using compact, quick moving small boats and rafts: "It then cued the camera to provide timely actionable intelligence which was transmitted to remotely-located Navy command and control centres, and to Navy Patrol Ships nearby," he explains.
To conclude our interview, talk turns to how the nature of the aerostats - and the sensors they carry - has changed in recent years. McNiel is keen to underline the fact that, as technologies that combine big data, analytics, and sophisticated infrared and telecommunications advance, TCOM has demonstrated how its lighter-than-air tactical aerostat platforms can leverage ever more innovative ISR applications: "This is from providing high-definition Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI) to precision geospatial-location sensors for persistent surveillance and enabling the latest 4G LTE cellular coverage in times of emergency."
McNiel points out that for domestic terrorism situations domestic response units must be prepared to respond rapidly to threats and that aerostats have a key role to play here: "It is important to establish persistent surveillance swiftly with maximum interoperability and real-time ISR Surveillance insights for commanders on the ground. First responders need to assess situations to determine the scope of what they are dealing with, where they might be located, differentiate who in the area might be a potential threat and evacuate civilians."
Moving on to disaster relief scenarios, such as the major fires earlier this year in Western Canada, as well as annual hurricanes and other natural disasters, McNiel believes that these are instances where Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI) deployed at a high elevation on an aerostat would be extremely useful: "Technologies designed for the battlefield are perfectly suited to address threats to the homeland and can be applied to solve and alleviate the duties of domestic first responders," says McNiel.