MIAMI (AFP) — 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 197-foot (60-meter) 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 1.6 million dollars 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 some 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
It also is 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, according to Coast Guard officials 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 is the extended amount of time a blimp can remain in the air.
The Skyship 600 can fly 16-hour missions at 3,000 feet (914 meters) while burning only 10 gallons (38 liters) of fuel per hour. However missions usually last about eight hours, said the ensign.
Meanwhile, the Navy's P3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, commonly used in the straits, burns between 600 and 700 gallons (2,270 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, said Meinhold.
Considering the Coast Guard in Key West is responsible for patrolling 55,000 square miles (142,449 square kilometers) of sea, any effort to improve the view of that region is welcome, he added.
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. According to Coast Guard officials, 26 Cuban migrants were found at sea July 12 with 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 does have its drawbacks, being that it is much slower than fixed-wing airships and helicopters, clocking a maximum speed of 57 miles per hour (92 kilometers per hour), preventing it from tracking faster-moving smaller vessels.
George Spyrou, president of Airship Management Services, the company leasing the blimp to the government, said the advantages of blimp surveillance far outweigh its limitations, noting that other governments have purchased blimps for use by the military.
In 1993, the British government purchased one of his company's blimps for surveillance over Belfast during a period of heightened tensions in Northern Ireland.
Closer to Florida, the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is using the sister vessel of the Skyship 600 to "monitor criminal activity" both on and off-shore, said Spyrou.
The US government has yet to commit to contracting the Airship blimp beyond the six-week test run.
"I think they need to analyze the results of the trial first," he said.
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