Mon, Jul 28, 2008 - Page 7 News List

US Coast Guard uses former sports blimp in patrols

AFP , MIAMI

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 migrants.

The 60m 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 US$1.6 million 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 145km away.

It is also 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, Coast Guard officials said 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 was the extended amount of time a blimp can remain in the air.

The Skyship 600 can fly 16-hour missions at 914m while burning only 38 liters of fuel per hour. Missions usually last about eight hours, the ensign said.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s P3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, commonly used in the straits, burns between 2,270 liters 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, Meinhold said.

Considering the Coast Guard in Key West is responsible for patrolling 142,449km² of sea, any effort to improve the view of that region is welcome, he said.

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 vessels.

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

The blimp has its drawbacks, being that it is much slower than fixed-wing airships and helicopters, clocking a maximum speed of 92kph, preventing it from tracking faster-moving smaller vessels.

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