Aug 15, 2009

The DHS Snoop Balloon

It's not often that a balloon makes people feel uncomfortable.

But the inflatable aircraft that has been floating above the St. Clair River in recent weeks, across the border from Sarnia, Ont., is no ordinary balloon.

Officially, the "balloon" is called an Aerostat. It's a Helium-inflated aircraft that looks like a flying wing, and had been floating between 150 and 300 metres above the ground in Port Huron, Mich., since the end of last month, until a storm damaged its fabric and it was taken down for repairs.

The company that owns it, Sierra Nevada Corporation, reportedly wants to test out the new technology to see if it can sell it to U.S. Homeland Security for use as a patrolling device.

But Bradley M. Lott, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major general who is running the Aerostat testing in Port Huron, said the company's plan is to see what the aircraft can do and how it can be used in a variety of situations -- including for use in rescue operations after natural disasters or airline accidents.

Lott said the Aerostat was designed by the Colorado-based Global Near Space Systems, and built by Delaware's ILC Dover -- the company that built and designed the space suits that NASA astronauts used when walking on the Moon in 1969.

The Aerostat has to follow Federal Aviation Administration flight rules and must be pulled down out of the sky each night at 11:30 p.m. It is permitted to go back up at 6:30 a.m.

The device carries a "technologically-advanced payload," Lott said, which could be configured to carry a camera, communications equipment or other materials.

But that payload -- and the powerful camera that has been training its eye on the St. Clair River while the Aerostat has being tested -- is exactly the problem issue for Sarnia residents who already put with surveillance from helicopters, boats, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other patrols along the Ontario-Michigan border. Not to mention the flying drones that will start patrolling the border next year.

"It's unbelievable that they think they need this on a friendly nation's border," said Adam Bush, a 24-year-old Sarnia resident who opposes the Aerostat's presence on the other side of the river.

But it goes beyond the issue of U.S. defence concerns for many Sarnia residents, who say they simply do not want to be spied upon -- or potentially be spied upon -- by cameras from across the border.

Having a camera peering into Sarnia is "a clear violation of our privacy and our sovereignty," said Mayor Mike Bradley, when explaining the issue over the phone to

"It's extremely creepy," said Bush, who has helped organize a cheeky protest against the Aerostat, aptly named "Moon the Balloon."

Lott said the Aerostat is, in fact, not spying on anybody and is simply tracking the river, while it is being tested.

Bradley, however, is additionally upset that no one in Sarnia was consulted as to whether the city wanted the Aerostat flying over its horizon.

He's even written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, though Bradley said he has not yet received a response about the Aerostat issue.

Lott said he has tried to reach out to Bradley about his concerns -- a gesture which the Sarnia mayor acknowledges, though he does not believe that the Aerostat is keeping its camera trained solely on the St. Clair River.

"No one here is buying the argument that they are not looking at buildings," Bradley said.

Lott insists that the Aerostat is being governed by the "ethical behaviour of an ethical company" and he said Sierra Nevada Corp. is trying to "be as open as we can be" about their operations, inviting TV crews to check out the aircraft and its payload up-close.

But the controversy has shown no signs of deflating in Sarnia.

On Saturday evening, Bush will head down to the Sarnia waterfront to help lead Moon the Balloon, knowing full well that the Aerostat will not be in the sky.

More than 1,400 people have signed up for the protest on a Facebook page, though Bush acknowledges he is not sure how many of them will actually show up.

Around 5 p.m., they will form a line, turn their backs to the U.S. border, drop their drawers, and point their rear ends at Michigan.

Bradley said he will not be attending, though he knows how upset Sarnia residents are about the issue.

"I would say it has engaged the public here," he said.

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