“Even in tests, they’re still collecting a lot of data on Americans: who’s driving to the union house, the church, the mosque, the Alzheimer’s clinic,” he said. “We should not go down the road of allowing this to be used in the United States and it’s disturbing to hear that these tests are being carried out, by the military no less.”
For many years, Sierra Nevada has supplied Southcom with light aircraft packed with millions of dollars’ worth of sensors, which then flew over Mexico, Colombia, Panama and the Caribbean sea. But planes require expensive crews and can only fly for a few hours at a time. In a report to the Senate armed services committee this February, Southcom’s commander, Admiral Craig Faller, wrote: “While improving efficiency, we still only successfully interdicted about six percent of known drug movements [in 2018].”
The new balloons promise a cheap surveillance platform that could follow multiple cars and boats for extended periods. And because winds often travel in different directions at different altitudes, the balloons can usually hover over a given area simply by ascending or descending.
Neither Sierra Nevada nor US Southcom responded to requests for comment on this story. However, the rival balloon operator World View recently announced that it had carried out multi-week test missions in which its own stratospheric balloons were able to hover over a five-mile-diameter area for six and a half hours, and larger areas for days at a time.
“The very nature of [these balloons] is that they can operate for weeks and months,” said Ryan Hartman, the CEO of World View. “The challenge is how to harness the stratospheric winds to be able to create a persistent station-keeping capability for customers.”
Raven Aerostar, the company that is supplying the balloons for Southcom’s tests and launching them from its facility in South Dakota, told the Guardian that it has had balloons remain aloft for nearly a month. Raven also makes balloons for the Alphabet subsidiary Loon, which uses them to help deliver internet and cellphone service from the stratosphere.