The runaway military surveillance blimp came detached from its base in Maryland on October 28 and floated over Pennsylvania before finally being brought down at around 3:00 pm EDT.
Before it broke free and started wreaking havoc on power lines with its 7,000 feet of tether, the blimp was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland with its twin, monitoring the mid-Atlantic and searching for enemy aircraft and missiles.
The blimp and its twin are part of a $US2.7 billion military program called The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defence Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS).
They’re equipped with highly sensitive radar equipment and hover 10,000 feet high just 45 miles away from Washington D.C. where they can see over 300 miles in all directions, according to the program’s description. They’re designed to detect enemy aircraft and missiles, but they can also detect cars on the ground and ships in the ocean.
But according to the Los Angeles Times, JLENS is doing a terrible job, and doesn’t seem worth the $US2.7 billion invested in the program.
During test runs the blimps have trouble distinguishing friendly and enemy aircraft. According to The Los Angeles Times, in 2012 the Pentagon issued a scathing report and rated JLENS’s reliability as “poor.” And software glitches make it difficult for the blimps to relay any intel back to the nation’s air defence networks — which is the whole point of having the blimps in place, the Los Angeles Times reports.
JLENS’ shortcomings became abundantly clear back in April when 61-year-old Douglas Hughes flew a tiny plane through 30 miles of restricted airspace and landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the blimps failed to alert anyone to Hughes’s presence.
Still, despite the apparent failure of the program, it might be a little unsettling to know that two giant surveillance blimps are floating around monitoring what’s happening in a large stretch of the East Coast.
And indeed many of the program’s critics think the blimps pose a privacy concern, The Intercept reports. Others think the blimps could be weaponised. The military says the blimps are made to detect dangerous weapons, not carry them, and that they don’t have the capability to track individuals.
According to a December 2014 post from The Intercept, companies have used these specific blimps to test out more sophisticated surveillance techniques:
In a test last year , however, Raytheon equipped one of the blimps with an MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System that provides both day and night imaging, laser designation, and laser illumination capabilities.
The result: JLENS operators could “watch live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away.” They also watched Raytheon employees “simulate planting a roadside improvised explosive device.”
The blimps were “originally designed to carry video cameras capable of distinguishing between humans and wheeled vehicles,” according to a September 2014 article in The Washington Post. Though they don’t currently and won’t during their time at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, the article said.
Whistle blower Edward Snowden, who revealed the existence of secret US government surveillance programs in 2014, is having a field day with the idea of “runaway surveillance blimps”:
I should know better by now, but even I still have trouble believing that “runaway surveillance blimp” is actually a thing.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 28, 2015
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