Unmanned Blimps: The New Spy in the Sky

At first glance, there was nothing special about the blimp floating high above the cars and crowd at this year's Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend. Like most airships, it acted as an advertising vehicle; this time for the Fisher House, a charity focused on helping injured veterans and their families. But the real promo should have been for the blimp's creator, Raytheon, the security company best known for its weapons systems. Hidden inside the 55-foot-long white balloon was a powerful surveillance camera adapted from the technology Raytheon provides the U.S. military. Essentially an unmanned drone, the blimp transmitted detailed images to the race's security officers and to Indiana police. "The airship is great because it doesn't have that Big Brother feel, or create feelings of invasiveness," says Lee Silvestre, vice president of mission innovation in Raytheon's Integrated Defense division. "But it's still a really powerful security tool." (Story continued below...)

Until recently, Raytheon's eye-in-the-sky technology was used in Afghanistan and Iraq to guard American military bases, working as airborne guards against any oncoming desert threat. Using infrared sensors and a map overlay not unlike Google Earth, the technology scans a large area, setting important landmarks (say, the perimeter of a military base), and constantly relays video clips back to a command center. If a gun fires or a bomb is detonated, the airships can detect the noise and focus the camera—all from a mighty-high 500 feet.

After the success of the Indy 500 trial, the company is targeting police departments and sporting facilities that want to keep an eye on crowds that might easily morph into an unruly mob. "Large municipalities could find many uses for this [technology] once we figure out how to get it in their hands," says Nathan Kennedy, the blimp's project manager.

For now, cost might be the only thing preventing a blimp from appearing over your head. Raytheon won't disclose how much the system may eventually cost, but chances are it won't be cheap. For municipalities without a Pentagon-size police budget, the blimps' potential to display ads may assist with financing. Raytheon says local authorities could install a built-in LED screen to attract sponsors, generate revenue and defer operating costs.

But what about privacy and civil-rights concerns? Raytheon argues that its technology is no different than what's already watching us on a daily basis: street cameras, cop cars, helicopters and foot patrols. "No new information is being picked up by the airships, necessarily," Silvestre says. "We're just incorporating lots of different feeds to provide a quick, complete picture; integration is the key here."

Not everyone is buying that argument. "Our legal system, not to mention our culture, has not had time to digest this new technology, or preserve the privacy we're used to having," says Jay Stanley, of ACLU's Technology and Liberty program. Though a 1986 Supreme Court case (California v. Ciraolo) set a precedent for the police using aerial surveillance, Stanley and his ACLU colleagues are waiting for the court to address modern technology. "In America, we have this principle that the government doesn't look over your shoulder unless you're suspected of wrongdoing." In other words, start eyeing the skies.