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Thirty years above the ground: Sierra Vista Aerostat could be ge - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

Thirty years above the ground: Sierra Vista Aerostat could be getting new technology

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SIERRA VISTA - Silently floating over Sierra Vista for the last 30 years, is a giant radar balloon, known as the Aerostat. It monitors illegal aircraft for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but not many people have seen it closely.

The aerostat was launched back in the late 80s. Its technology hasn't changed much since then, but the way some of those who live below the balloon perceive it, has.

"A lot of people were weary of it and what it was going to mean to us because we really didn't have the knowledge," said Sierra Vista resident Angela Hanson.

Now, it's simply become part of the landscape. "Eye in the Sky is what we call it," said Hanson.

The Aerostat was grounded by the wind Friday, but on quieter days, it stays high above the ground.

“What we do with this system is take a radar [and] put it up 10 to 12 thousand feet so we can see over these mountains and see long ranges over the curvature of the earth," said Rob Brown, CBP Tethered Aerostat Radar System Program Manager.

The balloon specifically looks for small planes carrying illegal drugs. A big problem when the aerostat was first launched.

"To the point where we were counting tens of thousands of aircraft per year delivering narcotics in the United States," said Brown. "Since we put TARS in place, that type of smuggling is down to less than 10 per year."

It can also track weather: wind, rain, and lightning.

Homeland security is just beginning to look into adding new technologies, and is talking to several bidding contractors.

"The oldest parts of the system happen to be in the radar, and so that is a priority for us to take a very close look at, to see what types of improvements with modern technology that we can make to the performance and the longevity of the radar,” said Brown.

The government hopes to have a new contract by 2017.

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