Commuters on I-95 driving south into Baltimore may notice something different in the coming months: A pair of giant white blimps hovering over Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Called JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System), the billion-dollar blimps are designed for massive aerial surveillance of Washington, D.C. and surrounding environs.
The first blimp, properly called an aerostat, is expected to launch the week of December 21 and covers a 340-mile range around Aberdeen Proving Ground which stretches south to North Carolina and north to the suburbs of Boston. Approximately two-thirds the length of a football field, each blimp is designed to stay in the air for 30 days at a time and contains sophisticated radar systems which detect air and ground activity. The goal, defense contractor Raytheon says, is to protect cities like Washington, D.C. and New York from aerial attack.
A second blimp is expected to launch in the coming months as well. According to Raytheon’s Doug Burgess, it is primarily intended to as a “surveillance system for detecting and tracking cruise missiles, most notably, but it also tracks other air traffic like helicopters, airplanes, unmanned vehicles, as well as surface moving traffic” like cars and trucks. The aerostats are tethered to the ground at an altitude of 10,000 feet.
During Fast Company’s conversation with Raytheon, the company made multiple unsolicited comments to emphasize that the aerostat’s surveillance system was designed for air traffic first and foremost, and not for tracking people or vehicles on the ground. One of the two blimps generates 360-degree high-resolution radar coverage for a team on the ground, and the other blimp contains specialized monitoring equipment. Raytheon press materials state that it is intended for “defensive radar coverage.” Despite the fact that America is currently only involved in military conflicts abroad, the prospect of a 9/11-style aerial attack remains a concern for many in the military.
Meanwhile, the aerostats have come under fire from critics for both perceived privacy violations and budgetary issues. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a watchdog group, has raised privacy concerns about the aircraft and filed numerous FOIA requests. One issue of special interest for EPIC is the fact that an earlier test iteration of JLENS contained a multi-spectral targeting system similar to ones used in Afghanistan which could view cars and trucks 10 miles away. Numerous delays in the program also led to a swelling budget, with the Government Accountability Office noting that it cost $168 million more than expected in fiscal year 2012 alone.
As of press time the aerostats are intended to stay in the air 24/7, and to be taken down only for a monthly maintenance cycle and during extreme weather events such as hurricanes. The large blimps will be connected to the ground by a tether, and information from the aerostats will be shared with entities including NORAD and the Air National Guard. So if you look up and see the blimp, feel free to wave. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll show up on radar.