The US military conducts large-scale experimental balloon testing in six states in the Midwest, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) documents.
Up to 25 unmanned, solar-powered balloons are launched from rural South Dakota and 250 miles through an area spanning parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri before ending in central Illinois.
Balloons should be a permanent surveillance system for locating and deterring drug trafficking and threats to domestic security when traveling in the stratosphere at heights of up to 65,000 feet, "according to a report by Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace and defense company. and defense companies.
The balloons are equipped with high-tech radar equipment, which allows many people to be tracked at the same time Vehicles day or night, whatever the weather. The unannounced tests received a FCC license to operate on similar flights from mid-July to September, approved last year.
Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Drug Studies Center at Bard College, New York, said, "This new technology suggests seeing everything at once. Sometimes it is called & # 39; fight against TiVo & # 39; This is because in events in the monitored area, you might be able to rewind the tape to see exactly what happened, and to see who was involved and where they came from. "
] The tests were commissioned by the South American Command (Southcom), which is responsible for Civil Protection, Intelligence and Security Co-operation in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Southcom is a joint project of US Army, Navy, Air Force and other forces. One of his key tasks is the identification and monitoring of drug transports to the US.
"We do not believe that American cities should be subject to large-scale surveillance that allows any vehicle to be tracked anywhere," said Jay Stanley, senior political analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Even in tests, they still collect a lot of data about Americans: who drives to the Union House, to the church, to the mosque, to the Alzheimer's Clinic?" He said. "We should not let this be used in the US and it is disturbing to hear that these tests are being carried out by the military as well. "
For many years, Sierra Nevada has supplied Southcom with light airplanes loaded with sensors worth millions of dollars, then over Mexico Airplanes, however, require expensive crews and can only fly for a few hours at a time. "In a report to the Senate Armed Forces Committee in February this year, Admiral Craig Faller, Southcom's commander, wrote:" We have the efficiency improved, but still only six percent of known drug movements successfully prohibited [in 2018]. "
The new balloons promise a gün Sting price monitoring platform that can track multiple cars and boats over a longer period of time. And because winds at different altitudes often fly in different directions, the balloons can usually hover over a certain area simply by ascending or descending.
Neither Sierra Nevada nor US Southcom responded to the request for comment on this story. However, competing balloon operator World View recently announced that it has conducted multi-week test missions, during which its own stratospheric balloons could hover over an area of five miles in diameter for days and a half over a larger area for days.
"The nature of [these balloons] is that they can work weeks and months," said Ryan Hartman, CEO of World View. "The challenge is to use the stratospheric winds to create a long-term customer base."
Raven Aerostar, the company that delivers the balloons for Southcom testing and launches from its facility in South Dakota The Guardian said balloons have been in the air for almost a month. Raven also produces balloons for Alphabet's daughter Loon, which provides Internet and mobile phone services from the stratosphere.
The FCC documents show that Southcom's balloons carry small satellite-like vehicles with sophisticated sensors and communications equipment. One of these sensors is a synthetic aperture radar that can detect any moving car or boat on a 40km stretch under the balloon.
The balloons also have advanced networking technologies that allow them to communicate and exchange data with each other and pass it on to recipients down the ground.
The FCC application states that this network contains video information. This suggests that the balloons may also be equipped with a Sierra Nevada video capture system called Gorgon Stare. This wide-area surveillance system consists of nine cameras capable of simultaneously capturing panoramic images over an entire city.
While Gorgon Stare is normally used on drones, Michel said the US Army used spy-tethered airships tethered in Afghanistan, and US Customs and Border Protection experimented with low-altitude balloons along the Mexican border.
However, wide-area surveillance with balloons in the stratosphere is relatively new, Michel said: "The higher the system, the broader the area you can cover. The downside is that you may get lower resolution images depending on the region and system. "Balloons are also subject to less restrictions and regulations than drones.
It is not clear from the FCC documents whether the Southcom tests were conducted in the US in connection with active investigations into narcotics or counter-terrorism. In addition, none of the parties involved would indicate whether the vehicle data of the Midwest was deleted, stored or transmitted to other federal or local authorities.
"[We would like to know] What do you do with this data, how do you store it? and whether they are considering using it in the US, "said Stanley of the ACLU. "Because if they decide that it can be used domestically, there is tremendous pressure to use it."
Southcom's surveillance tests are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Scott Wickersham, Raven Aerostar's vice president, told the Guardian that he had also worked with Sierra Nevada and the Pentagon research arm Darpa on a "highly developed and challenging development in the stratosphere". This refers to the agency's "Adaptable Lighter-Than-Air" (ALTA) program, a continuous effort to perfect stratospheric balloon navigation, which included multiple launches across the country, Wickersham said monitoring mission missions for a customer whose name he named would not call, gathering data that he would not specify.
"Obviously, there are laws to protect people's privacy and we respect all of these laws," said Hartman. "We also know how important it is to act ethically to further protect people's privacy."
Meanwhile, World View is preparing for the next surveillance flight, and testing in Sierra Nevada in the Midwest continues.