ROMA, Texas - Floating 2,500 feet above scrub-covered U.S. ranchland near the Mexican border, the payload of high-tech cameras onboard a balloon being used by the Border Patrol can easily see a cluster of reporters and the make, model and color of their vehicles a couple of miles away.
In Iraq or Afghanistan, where the technology has already proved effective at spotting attackers, such balloons provide surveillance around bases. U.S. officials think they could be equally helpful in tracking drug smugglers and illegal immigrants along a rugged stretch of the Rio Grande that doesn't have any segments of border fence.
The Border Patrol is testing two blimp-shaped, helium-filled balloons that are on loan from the Defense Department. Congressional staff members joined Homeland Security and Defense Department officials Wednesday near the border town of Roma, about 260 miles south of San Antonio, to see what the aerostats can do.
The two aerostats - one about 55 feet long, the other 72 feet - being tested along the border are made in North Carolina by TCOM, a company with its headquarters in Maryland.
At the altitude displayed Wednesday, the white, 72-foot-long balloon is small but visible. Near where it's tethered, operators inside a windowless shipping container outfitted with air conditioning and three banks of video monitors scan the area, zoom in on vehicles a couple of miles away, switch to infrared and quickly pick up a vehicle moving through a parking lot.
The balloons' cameras can easily reach across the river to Mexico, but Border Patrol spokesman Henry Mendiola said that isn't the intent.
"Especially in this area upriver from La Joya where we have no infrastructure, we have no technology, everything down here is still being done by boots on the ground, and so this type of technology would make our job a little more efficient," he said.
While the aerostats can't cover nearly the range of a helicopter or drone, they are far less expensive to operate and can be moved if needed.
The Border Patrol tested a similar balloon-mounted surveillance system in Arizona in March.
Arizona Daily Star