For years, YPG has conducted developmental and acceptance testing on scores of aerostats called the Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS) and its smaller cousin the Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS) for use in forward operating bases and above urban areas in combat zones.
Both platforms marry the most cutting edge high-tech detection sensors to an inexpensive platform: an ordinary blimp.
The helium-filled lighter-than-air craft float thousands of feet above ground level, tethered to an armature on a long, portable mooring trailer and lofting a sensor suite that allows ground controllers to continuously monitor a huge swath of land with video footage and radar. To prevent wind gusts from putting stress on the tether, the armature gently revolves in a strong breeze, rotating the entire aerostat. The blimp is raised and lowered with an easily-operated winch.
More than 100 of the platforms have proved their worth numerous times standing guard above forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, but what is the future of this elegantly simple means of keeping surveillance over territory?
“I’ve always thought that this system would have tremendous value when they started to bring them back to the states out of theater,” said Col. Reed Young, YPG commander. “It’s the kind of system that really doesn’t fit well into a peacetime Army because it is expensive to maintain and train Soldiers on and not the kind of thing that is easily operated in a peacetime environment. It just seems to me that if you have a real world U.S. government mission to protect the border, why not take advantage of an asset that the government already has? ”
Toward this end, Young recently hosted representatives from the Yuma and Tucson sectors of the U.S. Border Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration for a day-long look at the PTDS and PGSS systems under test at the proving ground.
“We have very similar technologies with respect to integrated fixed towers and mobile surveillance systems with these types of camera systems along with ground-based radar,” said Felix Chavez, deputy chief patrol agent of the Tucson sector.
Among other things, the visitors crowded into a mission control room to watch a 20 minute-long scenario in which simulated Border Patrol agents apprehended a group of simulated smugglers many miles from the platforms’ cameras based on instructions radioed to them from the aerostats’ camera operators. Further, in a real-life situation, an agent in a truck could watch the same video and radar feed supplied by the aerostat cameras from a laptop computer in their truck.
“Based on what I’ve seen of the system and what I’ve been briefed today, it seems to me that we could get oriented very quickly on the equipment and be able to implement it and execute with it,” said Chavez. “It doesn’t seem like it would be a far stretch with respect to what we have in terms of our integrated fixed towers.”
The ground control stations for the sensor and camera payloads aboard the aerostats are capable of keeping weeks of archive footage. Thus, controllers can review old footage in an effort to track exactly where perpetrators came from.
“Using it is a much better option than putting it in storage,” said Young. “You could maintain the readiness for the next time you deploy somewhere. That way all the cost and expense during peacetime provides a legitimate benefit to the U.S. government but provides a springboard to use it the next time you go to war.”
For their part, the visitors were impressed with their visit and the systems’ capabilities.
“The hospitality was amazing, first and foremost,” said Chavez. “The capability of the PTDS and PGSS is definitely something we can use in the border security mission.”
As for going above and beyond his normal duties as commander of YPG to showcase the systems’ capabilities to domestic law enforcement agencies, Young is philosophical.
“I’m not doing this as the commander of YPG or as a previous project manager for the program office,” he said. “I’m doing it as a patriotic American that sees a way to do something good for Americans for a valuable, viable mission that our country has. Part of being an American is to take these opportunities and be the impetus for ideas like this.”