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March 13, 2009 4:57 PM   Subscribe

The Pentagon plans to spend $400 million to develop a giant blimp that will float 65,000 feet above the Earth for 10 years, providing unblinking and intricate radar surveillance of the vehicles, planes and even people below.

I only used that first link because clicking on a 'print version' of an LA Times link reverts back to the original page.
posted by gman (106 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not the first time the Pentagon has been involved with blimps.
posted by netbros at 5:03 PM on March 13, 2009


I know this is another frightening advance towards our Orwellian future, but my mental picture of "giant blimp" still makes me chuckle.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:06 PM on March 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


Fuck the Pentagon.
posted by ornate insect at 5:14 PM on March 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yay airships!

Wait, am I supposed to say "boo airships"? That is not possible - they are airships!
posted by Artw at 5:14 PM on March 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Fuck the Pentagon.

Dude. You're going to end up on the 'list' with me.
posted by gman at 5:15 PM on March 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


The 450-foot-long craft would give the U.S. military a better understanding of an adversary's movements, habits and tactics, officials said. And the ability to constantly monitor small movements in a wide area -- the Afghanistan- Pakistan border, for example -- would dramatically improve military intelligence.

Dream. The. Fuck. On.

Yeah, you're not going to nail this with a MANPAD. But, it's a 450' long slow thing that you want to last 10 years? The Soviets nailed a U2 -- flying around 70,000' at Mach .85 -- in 1960.

This thing lasts exactly as long as you can maintain absolute air supremacy *and* prevent a semi-modern anti-aircraft missle from being launched anywhere near the thing. Hitting a U2 at speed was hard, hitting a drifting blimp will be trivial.

There's exactly *one* place the US can put this thing into the sky and expect it to hang around for ten years.

Over the US. Well, okay, it could probably count penguins in Antartica safely. Maybe. There are a lot of New Zelanders down there. Kiwi+Beer+Boredom=????
posted by eriko at 5:16 PM on March 13, 2009 [31 favorites]


That's nothing. I heard Google was going to drive around and take pictures of people's houses!
posted by txvtchick at 5:18 PM on March 13, 2009 [14 favorites]


It's not a new idea ... in the late 1930s the Germans used the Graf Zeppelin II (successor to the Hindenburg) to do extensive photo reconnaissance over England. At 700+ ft. in length, it was much larger than this new proposed "giant" blimp.
posted by dacoit at 5:18 PM on March 13, 2009


We got a taste of this in Enemy Of The State. Back then, it was a fictional bit about what could be done with satellite tracking that overplayed what was really possible, but this thing would really allow that stuff in the real world (eg. Do you have no idea where someone is? No problem! Simply rewind the video of the city back to a point in time when you do know where he was, then press play-FF and follow him up to where he is Right Now)

If this works, it's only a matter of time until they are put over US cities, recording all public movements, with logs going back years. It's a kind of surveillance that needs no warrants, is entirely legal, and yet is potentially far more invasive than anything today that does require warrants. You can bet that agencies and police will be salivating over this for domestic use if the military gets the tech work, and there are no obstacles to domestic use.

If you're in Manhatten, the thing would struggle to track people because of the subway and cabs (unless it was good enough to resolve people at a resolution of 10cm pixels or better), but if you're in LA, your entire life would likely be an open book.

it's kinda cool, and kinda worrying.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:18 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just wait till Google gets one.
posted by Artw at 5:22 PM on March 13, 2009


Favorited by others: 1984 (from my profile)

Well, that's fuckin' freaky.
posted by gman at 5:23 PM on March 13, 2009


Hmmmmm.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:24 PM on March 13, 2009


Unabomber, why did we doubt you? Where are you, Unabomber, in our hour of need?
posted by fire&wings at 5:26 PM on March 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hell, considering how broke we are, I wouldn't be too surprised if Google got this one.

But that's just the dirty cynic in me. I have to admit, there is a small but strong part of my soul that sees this and goes "Whoo! Giant zepplin! Throw some ads on it and we are one step closer to Blade Runner!"
posted by quin at 5:27 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you're in Manhatten, the thing would struggle to track people because of the subway and cabs (unless it was good enough to resolve people at a resolution of 10cm pixels or better), but if you're in LA, your entire life would likely be an open book.

This strikes me as pretty unlikely — any view from directly above is just going to see the top of my head. You can resolve it at whatever resolution you want, it's going to look pretty much like the top of any other guy's head.

Likewise, the old "they'll be able to read your license place from a satellite" trope — not unless I put it on top of my car, they won't.

And any view from anywhere except directly above will lose me as soon as I turn a corner, or walk behind anything.
posted by nicwolff at 5:36 PM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is part of the plan to substitute for space-based systems after the apocalyptic space garbage cascade makes LEO useless.
posted by grobstein at 5:37 PM on March 13, 2009


"Just wait till Google gets one."

AskMeta: "I have an unusual name, and back when I was at college, I had a candlelit dinner that ended up with sex on the roof of the dorm. That was TEN YEARS AGO but archival video footage of that is the third-ranking hit for my name in Google BlimpTube, and I'm pretty sure it's hurting my business! How can I get the video deleted from the archive?"

A: previously
posted by -harlequin- at 5:38 PM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


i think survelliance of new zealand is of the utmost importance, lest the chills reform and destroy us all.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:38 PM on March 13, 2009


The worst part is, each side of the blimp will be rigged with a huge LED light array that will blink the words "VISIT PENTAGON.GOV TODAY AND YOU COULD WIN A FREE IPOD" incessantly, and spend most of its time hovering over suburban areas at low altitudes.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:39 PM on March 13, 2009 [8 favorites]


It'd be a lot cooler if it were made of lead and was a concert venue where everyone had to wear multicolored robes with a special area for the practice of sex magick. Involving ritual swords, snakes and fire! Imagine what a 60s rock concert would have been like traveling around the world 65,000 feet up. And the parachutes too! I bet that'd be a lot cooler than the cold war and our Orwellian future...

I want to write a book about what the 20th century would have been like if the military industrial complex and the counterculture switched places. I'll have to give it away on the internet for free though. Or pay people to read it.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 5:42 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The blimp, after the addition of a giant brass telescope hand-crafted by a time-traveling Ludwig von Mises and other members of the "Austrian School" of economics, will be flown by Ron Paul and Cory Doctorow.
posted by orthogonality at 5:43 PM on March 13, 2009 [8 favorites]


This strikes me as pretty unlikely — any view from directly above is just going to see the top of my head. You can resolve it at whatever resolution you want, it's going to look pretty much like the top of any other guy's head.

No, it's not. There are plenty of ways to identify you from just a few pixels. Remember, I don't need to identify you from a line-up of the entire city, just a line-up of 3 people - however many are currently in your suburban CA house when a person exits the building. If it's the average American nuclear family, the residents are almost certain to look sufficiently different even when viewed from above with only a blob of a few pixels to go by. And if you have your own car, then it becomes much easier.

But like I said, if you're in Manhattan, the technology would have to get better than I anticipate being feasible today. LA is feasible today. Manhattan is feasible "tomorrow".
posted by -harlequin- at 5:46 PM on March 13, 2009


The worst part is, each side of the blimp will be rigged with a huge LED light array that will blink the words "VISIT PENTAGON.GOV TODAY AND YOU COULD WIN A FREE IPOD" incessantly, and spend most of its time hovering over suburban areas at low altitudes.

And we can all make Blade Runner jokes!
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:55 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wish that Cory Doctorow would wear a cape ::sigh::
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 5:58 PM on March 13, 2009


Still, I can see the advantages of a blimp. And it doesn't scare me quite as bad as RQ-4A Global Hawk. I mean, just look at the diagram on this Northrop Grunman brochure (pdf - or here). A blimp seems almost comforting to me. Except for all the constant surveillance.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:08 PM on March 13, 2009


Is this a sign of bloat in the Pentagon's budget? Are the numbers inflated? Is the feasibility of the scheme being puffed up in order to make it float with Congress? Are people's futures and fortunes tied to the buoyancy of this idea? These are the questions that float to the top of my mind.

Oh, the humanity.
posted by never used baby shoes at 6:09 PM on March 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Huh - you would only need ~150 of these to cover the entire landmass of the earth! Cool.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:11 PM on March 13, 2009


Blimps are now officially scarier than the Global Hawk.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:14 PM on March 13, 2009


Can I put an ad on the side for Gunga Diner, instead?
posted by fijiwriter at 6:15 PM on March 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


You don't need a blimp to do this in the US. Just put moderate resolution cameras at most street corners. Chicago is halfway there.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:18 PM on March 13, 2009


I'm the new president, and I'm sitting at my desk, going line by line through the Pentagon's budget looking for waste, and suddenly, the word blimp jumps off the page at me. Human stupidity is truly fucking monumental.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:20 PM on March 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


Likewise, the old "they'll be able to read your license place from a satellite" trope — not unless I put it on top of my car, they won't.

This thinking is from the previous era - we're not talking about photography. I don't need a license plate because I've got an address and a time machine - the city logged on video. When you leave your residence and hop into a car, that's your car, regardless of what the plates might be, that's the only car I need care about.
Since the only person who is going to move that car after you've parked it, is you, then even when you've gone inside a building, I can fast forward to when you return to your car, and I know that that blob is you, then I can rewind to backtrace your steps to see when and where you left, possible (depending on resolution) whether an extra pixel or change in reflectivity suggests you're now carrying something, etc.

And any view from anywhere except directly above will lose me as soon as I turn a corner, or walk behind anything.

No, same as when you're at home, merely going out of sight doesn't mean anything. Unless it's Manhattan, only a few of the people coming back into view are going to be likely contenders to be you, and of those, there may be sufficient differentiation to pick you up again right away, and failing that, I just use the time machine.


I know this all sounds fantastical, but today's data storage technology is so vast, fast, and cheap, that it's up to the task of logging a city. Do you dispute that?
Given that today's technology is up to the task of logging a city, I don't know why it won't eventually be put to this task. It's not a trivial task, but it's not a trivial budget either.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:24 PM on March 13, 2009


A few years down the road, they can hold on a world webcast for the Most Expensive Taliban Target Practice attempt on the Guiness records, and charge some bucks via PayPal to recoup the costs. I bet the fireworks on the sky alone are awesome enough to justify a 10 USD admission ticket.
posted by Iosephus at 6:26 PM on March 13, 2009


"The dirigible will be filled with helium and powered by an innovative system that uses solar panels to recharge hydrogen fuel cells. Military officials said those underlying technologies -- plus a very lightweight hull -- were critical to making the project work."

For some time now, I've wanted to experiment with making a blimp that would stay up indefinitely by using solar power to counter gas-leak by electrolyzing rain to extract hydrogen. This design is pretty close. But either way it's perfect:

OK everyone - THIS IS THE PLAN!
posted by -harlequin- at 6:37 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


On a side note of paranoia, my high schooler is invited to participate in a college-based program this summer, and one part of the program involves visiting some US government labs. I don't know which ones at the moment. Students are required to provide their US passport numbers now so they can visit the labs. I thought we weren't going to have national ID's? Or is my naivete showing again?
posted by etaoin at 6:39 PM on March 13, 2009


This strikes me as pretty unlikely — any view from directly above is just going to see the top of my head. You can resolve it at whatever resolution you want, it's going to look pretty much like the top of any other guy's head.

Likewise, the old "they'll be able to read your license place from a satellite" trope — not unless I put it on top of my car, they won't.


nicwolff, that's pretty naive. Just take a look at Google Maps satellite view for proof - the camera-wards walls of buildings are visible (in most places).

And any view from anywhere except directly above will lose me as soon as I turn a corner, or walk behind anything.

And that, in turn, is only relevant if you don't cross the next street... in which case, they still know where you are, unless you entered the subway, or boarded a bus.

In other words, they'll can find out much more about your peregrinations than they can today.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:40 PM on March 13, 2009


I approve of this, but only if it says "Ice Cube's a pimp."
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:40 PM on March 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


peregrinations

Well I just learned a new word today.
posted by cashman at 6:48 PM on March 13, 2009


What language is it?
posted by gman at 6:50 PM on March 13, 2009


Can we name it "Whistlestop?"
posted by FormlessOne at 6:51 PM on March 13, 2009


Just wait till Google gets one.

Better them than Skynet, I tells ya.
posted by Mikey-San at 6:56 PM on March 13, 2009


Just wait till Google gets one.

The Google Beta Blimp will be grounded for years before it gets to soar the open skies, and even then it will only spy on Redmond, Washington.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:56 PM on March 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


I am in favor of this zeppelin, if only so that somebody can write a killer calypso song about it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:00 PM on March 13, 2009


In the beginning...
posted by Flex1970 at 7:00 PM on March 13, 2009


Airships on the Rise via a Bibliography from the excellent Air University Fairchild Research Information Center.

eriko This thing lasts exactly as long as you can maintain absolute air supremacy *and* prevent a semi-modern anti-aircraft missle from being launched anywhere near the thing. Hitting a U2 at speed was hard, hitting a drifting blimp will be trivial. . .it could probably count penguins in Antartica safely. Maybe. There are a lot of New Zelanders down there.

The LAT article is just a press release. I know it states the blimp will operate at FL 65 but please consider that Missile-launched Blimp Will Survey 'No-Man's Land' (also courtesy of a Fairchild Bibliography) reports that as far back as 2005 engineers at JHU had developed an airship capable of operating between the 65,000-foot ceiling of commercial aircraft and the 100,000-foot (20-mile) minimal distance required for low-Earth-orbit satellites.

It will be interesting to read more about this from Aerospace and Defense trade publications and journals which will have more in-depth coverage and analysis.
posted by mlis at 7:02 PM on March 13, 2009


A couple years ago I ran across a research contract solicitation from the DoD for doing long-term, persistent surveillance of human targets in an urban environment, including entering/exiting vehicles:

http://www.dodsbir.net/sitis/archives_display_topic.asp?Bookmark=30803

Looking at the list of things DARPA and the Defense Dept. want to pay people to research over the next couple years gives you an idea of their priorities, and desired applications.
posted by jjwiseman at 7:05 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Once aloft, I plan on worshipping it.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:11 PM on March 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


If this thing gets built, I'm getting into the sombrero business. Everyone's gonna want one!
posted by orme at 7:18 PM on March 13, 2009


It's nearly impossible imagine the magnitude of really large figures like "half a billion". We're not just not equipped to picture the enormity, so it's important to put it into perspective:

A one-dollar bill is 6 inches long.
There are 10,560 one-dollar bills in a mile.
The circumference of the Moon 6,790 miles.
End to end, you could wrap $400 million around the Moon 5 1/2 times.

I'm going to start counting the amount of money goverments and corporations spend on bullshit in "Moons" at this point.

Except for that last line, I sent the above to the White House. I'd like to encourage everyone here to go bitch about this at whitehouse.gov.
posted by Mikey-San at 7:20 PM on March 13, 2009


Some similar blimpage (although on preview, these are only at 15,000 feet) - the Tethered Aerostat Radar System.
posted by acro at 7:24 PM on March 13, 2009


Hey there, blimpy boy, flying through the sky so fancy free...
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:28 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


If only they'd spend $400 million to develop a giant ekranoplan, they'd get my vote.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:33 PM on March 13, 2009


People have been talking about the many uses of giant blimps for like 100 years now. I remember reading about giant fire-fighting blimps in Popular Science like 10 years ago, and I'm sure many of you remember reading about them earlier.
No, it's not. There are plenty of ways to identify you from just a few pixels. Remember, I don't need to identify you from a line-up of the entire city, just a line-up of 3 people - however many are currently in your suburban CA house when a person exits the building. If it's the average American nuclear family, the residents are almost certain to look sufficiently different even when viewed from above with only a blob of a few pixels to go by. And if you have your own car, then it becomes much easier.
This is great until you go in a building. I assure you that there are plenty of chubby, dark-haired, dark-skinned people in my city that would blend with me.


In other words, big.fucking.deal.
posted by !Jim at 7:34 PM on March 13, 2009


I just got this wacky idea of trying to compile some big display of 'Hello Blimp' or something. Give the CIA a chuckle and at the same time let them know we know we're being watched .
posted by kldickson at 7:44 PM on March 13, 2009


It's nearly impossible imagine the magnitude of really large figures like "half a billion". We're not just not equipped to picture the enormity

Sure we are!
posted by cashman at 7:48 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


eponysterical!
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:01 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


jim, you're missing the storage part of it. Assume they're capturing the whole city, all the time. You walk out of your house in the morning, they track you to the mall. They wait till you go back to your car again. Or if you switch cars? They wait for you to show up at your gf's house and then rewind from there. As long as you ever show up anywhere they can positively id you they can backtrace your steps.

Now it might not be able to find you if you just get out of town at the first opportunity, but if you have any kind of routine, you're fucked.
posted by empath at 8:03 PM on March 13, 2009


"It's not a balloon! It's an airship, you stupid little thick-headed Saxon git!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:05 PM on March 13, 2009


Giant gasbags ahoy...wait, you guys are talking about Limbaugh again, aren't you?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:07 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


oh ... shitty ...

Manhattan, you say? Manhattan might be alright ...
posted by EatTheWeak at 8:08 PM on March 13, 2009


posted by cashman

eponysterical!

You ever seen his commercials?
posted by gman at 8:09 PM on March 13, 2009


eports that as far back as 2005 engineers at JHU had developed an airship capable of operating between the 65,000-foot ceiling of commercial aircraft and the 100,000-foot (20-mile) minimal distance required for low-Earth-orbit satellites.

I predict a renewed interest in the generation of smokescreen and radar-defeating chaff technologies among the world's insurgents and smaller governments.

Also, it is trivially easy to build a small balloon capable of reaching the upper atmosphere. Instead of carrying a payload of weather or photographic instrumentation, one need only to replace those with a rudimentary steering system and a quantity of shrapnel generating explosives, a heatseeking missile (at that height, i guarantee the skin of this blimp will be the hottest thing around), or--if one is really tricky--a small EMP device. Also, you know what else can kill a large, slow moving airborne object? A laser. You dont even need to damage it much--even a few small holes will throw the gas-loss to hydrogen regeneration ratio off far enough that eventually the thing will either go low enough for a standard anti-aircraft weapon to reach it or it will need to come down for repair anyways.
posted by Chrischris at 8:16 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


*Grabs bow and arrow*

PS: Did the LA Times/Pentagon know April 1 is only 18 days away? They seem a bit early...
posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:21 PM on March 13, 2009


It would rule to ride around in that thing.


What?
posted by nanojath at 8:36 PM on March 13, 2009


Another concern I have is that this thing will persuasively bear false witness.
Remember Colin Powel's presentation to the UN - the evidence against Iraq?

Rhetorically assuming the role of blimp operator once more:
This system is in that perfect spot where it's convincing enough to be cast as evidence that can be used against you, and subtly fuzzy enough that I actually have to interpret a lot of what I'm seeing.

And since I suspect that you're a drug dealer, this system is flawed enough that innocuous activities are going to look exactly like drug-dealer behaviour to me. And your life is going to go through the wringer because of that.

See, you don't have to worry about my all-seeing god-like nature, because I don't have any such thing. You have to worry about my (already on public record) all-seeing stunning incompetence and blinkered world-view, in an environment where I'm not the one who suffers if I make a mistake, and there are few (if any) incentives for me to raise my game, and quite a few incentives to routinely brush mistakes under the rug and just continue on my familiar way.

With a city being logged, you don't have anything to fear if you've done nothing wrong, unless my competence is less than God-like. :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:47 PM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


so what do they do when it's cloudy?
posted by pyramid termite at 8:56 PM on March 13, 2009


so what do they do when it's cloudy?

They continue to record. Clouds are opaque to your puny visible spectrum. Radar does not operate in that spectrum.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:58 PM on March 13, 2009


Also, it is trivially easy to build a small balloon capable of reaching the upper atmosphere. ... Also, you know what else can kill a large, slow moving airborne object?

How do you do any of this without it being traced back to you? They can rewind the small-balloon to find the launch site, rewind the launch site to find you, rewind you to find where you live, what you do, and who you are, then you're toast.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:07 PM on March 13, 2009


How many AEW&C have been shot down? This is not much different, probably cheaper and won't cost lives. Just as I was getting out of the army we has these reconaissance vehicles with a 100ft mast that could see people (in the dark, through smoke) from 10km away. This seems to fit somewhere between the two. Keep it over area you control and it could be relatively easy to defend. Playing devil's advocate here, but every single thing the pentagon researches could be used against it's own citizens.
posted by furtive at 9:09 PM on March 13, 2009


I want to write a book about what the 20th century would have been like if the military industrial complex and the counterculture switched places. I'll have to give it away on the internet for free though. Or pay people to read it.

I want to read that book!
posted by overglow at 9:14 PM on March 13, 2009


They can rewind the small-balloon to find the launch site

it would be utterly trivial to find a small clearing in the woods - or even an area with a lot of tree lined streets
posted by pyramid termite at 9:20 PM on March 13, 2009


Playing devil's advocate here, but every single thing the pentagon researches could beused against it's own citizens.

No, not legally. Not without martial law or other change in law.
This blimp thing would not only be legal Right Now, as-is, but I imagine there would be significant demand for it domestically, pressure for it, and lobbying to get it. That's what's making me fatalistic about it. Maybe people will get up in arms and get it stopped like TIA, but if it delivers even half of its potential, it would be too seductive to really let go, and likely just crop up again in another guise - like TIA has.

I think initially the desire for it would be offset by huge cost to run, but costs will fall in time. Barring armageddon, if these things work well enough, I think it's just a matter of time before countries use them on their own cities, most likely billed as protection against crime and terror.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:20 PM on March 13, 2009


Radar does not operate in that spectrum.

radar can't tell joe six pack from joe terrorist, read license plates, tell what kind of car you drive, or a lot of other things
posted by pyramid termite at 9:21 PM on March 13, 2009


radar can't tell joe six pack from joe terrorist, read license plates, tell what kind of car you drive, or a lot of other things

The whole point is that you don't need to read license plates or any of that nonsense, because you've got something far more powerful at identifying people.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:28 PM on March 13, 2009


Obviously, we have a blimp gap with China.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:29 PM on March 13, 2009


But what about the Sky Pirates??
posted by GuyZero at 9:32 PM on March 13, 2009


$400 million. Just think. Tonight, some banker's child is going hungry because of this.
posted by dhartung at 9:49 PM on March 13, 2009


They continue to record. Clouds are opaque to your puny visible spectrum. Radar does not operate in that spectrum.

Yeah, please show me a radar that can distinguish individuals in a constantly shifting, radar-noisy urban environment.


How do you do any of this without it being traced back to you? They can rewind the small-balloon to find the launch site, rewind the launch site to find you, rewind you to find where you live, what you do, and who you are, then you're toast.


5 guys, 3 cars, a couple of covered parking garages, a few weeks of coming and going, and I could create a situation where, unless you are tracking me already (which would presuppose a a level of HUMINT well-developed and sophisticated enough to pretty much render moot a good chunk of this system's "mission" in the first place), you could "rewind" your chain of chronologically linked but contextually opaque images for 20 years and still not really know who was responsible. You would know when and where the attack occured, and you would even know who launched it, but you would never know how nor would you know who was truly responsible. Hell, I could pay some kid twenty bucks to flip the switch on a helium tank and launch a balloon from the roof of a covered parking garage three weeks after I planted it there. By that time, literally tens of thousands of people and thousands of vehicles would have passed through the space. You would have to "rewind" and track every one of those people and every one of those cars to even begin to just get past the first level of complexity. If I threw in a few more twists, you would so quickly run into a level of complexity and causal ambiguity that it would take you years to figure out what happened.

B
posted by Chrischris at 9:58 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


nicwolff, that's pretty naive. Just take a look at Google Maps satellite view for proof - the camera-wards walls of buildings are visible (in most places).

Google Maps (and Google Earth) detailed urban aerial images are taken from airplanes, not from satellites.

Anyway, think about this for a second and you'll see I'm not being naive: you're 70,000 feet above New York City. If you can see me come out of my front door, then you have to be almost directly overhead, since the buildings on both sides of the avenue are tall. Which means you can't see my face, which means if I put on or took off a hat or jacket since I went in, you've lost me.

(When you look at Google Maps, and it seems like you can see people in profile? Those are their shadows.)

I know this all sounds fantastical, but today's data storage technology is so vast, fast, and cheap, that it's up to the task of logging a city. Do you dispute that?

Well, let's see. 305 mi² ÷ 16"² × let's say 8 bits × 3 channels × let's say 30 frames per second × 60 × 60 × 24 ≈ 6 × 10¹⁷ bytes, or 600 petabytes per day. If you compressed it on the fly, let's say you'd keep a keyframe a second and get it down to 30 petabytes a day. Given that the largest database in the world is probably Yahoo's 2 petabyte transaction store, and you'd be generating fifteen times that much data daily, yes I do dispute that you could continuously log video of New York City at that resolution today.

The whole point is that you don't need to read license plates or any of that nonsense, because you've got something far more powerful at identifying people.

No you don't.
posted by nicwolff at 10:02 PM on March 13, 2009


nicwolf - you're being obtuse. Some more realistic estimates sufficient for the purposes I describe:

20kmx20km - a 400km2 city area. 10cm pixels (enough to distinguish individuals), 16bit single-wavelength imaging, one frame per 2 seconds.

That comes to 19 gig a frame uncompressed. 80 terabytes a day uncompressed.

On top of that, since almost the entire city is stationary almost the entire time, there is massive opportunity for specialized compression to ditch the noise. I think a good team could cut that to 8 terabytes a day without losing the details you want, which at the full retail cost of HDDs, is a daily storage fee of well under $1000 per day. That's less than the annual budget of, well, almost anything. That's less than paying the salaries of the people who would operate the thing.

Since storage for recording the city is this cheap, we could speculate wider coverage area, higher framerates, etc if necessary. 16bit imaging seems overkill though. Maybe 12bit is more realistic.

And the killer point is that every 18 months, this price is cut in half.

While the blimps wouldn't be using visible-light sensors, for another perspective, 10MP sensors are cheap nowdays. That means an array that can take a photo of a 1km2 area at 10cm pixel resolution would fit on your hand with more hand space free than what is taken up by the array.

Today's technology - and budgets - are up to the task. I think the engineers are going to be more challenged by other aspects of this project than these. Mass storage is an extremely well-trodden path compared to some of the other things they are trying to do with this blimp.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:48 PM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


yo dawg i herd u liek spyin so i put a blimp in ur sky so u can spy while u fly
posted by casarkos at 11:01 PM on March 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


So now you're going to do all this identification and tracking of the tops of people's heads from monochrome images, as they move in and out of shadows and crowds, and under awnings — at .5 frames a second? (Which isn't really what i'd have called "video"). I don't think so.

And how will this blimp get line of sight to the doorways on both sides of every street in the city again, so it can watch me come and go? A mile out from right under it, it can't see the near sidewalk at all (assuming 30 story buildings and 20-foot-wide sidewalks). So now we're talking about a fleet of giant surveillance blimps up there above the clouds.

Oh yeah... clouds.

If I'm being obtuse, you're being paranoid.
posted by nicwolff at 11:43 PM on March 13, 2009


Yeah, whatever. As long as this thing can't see me in my underground submarine base, I could give a rat's ass.
posted by brundlefly at 11:59 PM on March 13, 2009


Kiwi+Beer+Boredom=????

Surface to Air Sheep
posted by doctor_negative at 12:31 AM on March 14, 2009


You don't need a blimp to do this in the US. Just put moderate resolution cameras at most street corners. Chicago is halfway there.

Yeah, but that could never become the case with a whole nation, could it?
posted by protorp at 12:32 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


To: All special agents

Re: Satellite and blimp surveillance

Effective immediately, all outdoor activity shall be performed while wearing your agency-issued sombrero. Musical instruments, traveling in groups of four and fake mustaches are optional but encouraged.

Signed,
Management
posted by Tacodog at 1:01 AM on March 14, 2009


Sometimes, basic research scientists/engineers would like the DOD to fund them.

Sometimes, they can make a cover story to convince a bureaucrat that their idea kinda sorta has military applications and deserves some military research dollars.

Since it's unfortunately hard to sell funding basic research to Congress and really easy to justify defense budgets, this is the next best thing.

This isn't even that farfetcherd compared to some other ideas, but it's basically $400 million for basic research into solar panels, fuel cells, and blimp design that will almost certainly never see any combat/killing people use. There's much worse things to burn defense dollars on.

"Go figure out more efficient solar panels/fuel cells" is a more useful form of economic stimulus than "Have some money to go do nonspecific investment banking things" anyway.
posted by Diz at 1:13 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Soup's gonna be pretty cold by the time they get it to the guy up top.
posted by turgid dahlia at 1:52 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


So now you're going to do all this identification and tracking of the tops of people's heads from monochrome images, as they move in and out of shadows and crowds, and under awnings — at .5 frames a second?

Absolutely. And what's this "So now" business? This was the level of detail I figured when reading the article, before reading the blue, before posting a word. The level of detail which prompted me to notice that people were still thinking inside the old spy-satellite paradigm and missing the elephant in the room - that this could log an area and become a time machine. This is the level of detail where I could do those things that I talked about. I'm not interested in whether you couldn't. This is far above the level of detail where Colin Powel "tracked" the WMD smugglers thieves and looters, yet this is a broad-spectrum time machine that doesn't need to be aimed ahead of time at sites of interest, it has the potential to be everywhere, all the time, a complete game-changer. The resolution I describe is acceptable, and it's far less than what is possible.

It's not paranoia, because I don't fear this. It's a clever concept to me - what it possibly could do and what it probably can't do intrigues me. What bugs me is how silly it seems to think of this as Spy Satellite version 1.5, when it gives every sign of striving to be a fundamentally different animal. It has a half-billion dollar budget and flagship-project status because quite a few influential people think there is something significant here.

And I'm bowing out of this thread because it makes no difference - it's pointless knocking down silly objections that haven't been thought through ("Oh yeah... clouds") or have - if you can't be bothered thinking these things though, or don't understand the technology involved, then you can (and are) just going to manufacture an endless stream of these objections. No thanks.

I've outlined the elephant that seemed to be largely unnoticed. Whether anyone cares to consider that the people behind this clever device are maybe not all smoking crack or unable to come up with more creative ways to suck on the R&D teat, and might be on to something that might sorta kinda maybe... work... someday... it isn't really my business.

Naturally, I may be wrong. They may be planning to take this in some other direction. It might be a big R&D pork project. But I haven't often been wrong about this sort of thing in the past - I think enough people with enough influence see enough potential in this revolutionary concept that it's going to get a fair push towards the direction I outlined.
You may proceed to mock me.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:36 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm the new president, and I'm sitting at my desk, going line by line through the Pentagon's budget looking for waste, and suddenly, the word blimp jumps off the page at me. Human stupidity is truly fucking monumental.

More like human deviousness. The Pentagon trots this thing out whenever budget cuts threaten. They know it's ridiculous, and they know it'll be laughed out of Congress, but it diverts attention. It's the military who invented the concept of "cannon fodder" after all.
posted by Skeptic at 4:55 AM on March 14, 2009


With all the domestic and international surveillance presently going on by the US and others, one additional method no longer shocks. The military+intel community continue to be well fed financially while the nation's economy rots. Not by chance that military recruiting is way up these days while young men and women fresh out of high school can no longer get jobs in the private sector. Ask not what your country can do for you but what your country has done to you.
posted by Postroad at 5:18 AM on March 14, 2009


it's pointless knocking down silly objections that haven't been thought through ("Oh yeah... clouds") or have - if you can't be bothered thinking these things though, or don't understand the technology involved, then you can (and are) just going to manufacture an endless stream of these objections.

you've yet to prove that they're silly objections - when i pointed out that clouds block camera views, you said that radar would work instead - when i pointed out that radar isn't going to identify people or read license plates you claimed they had "something more powerful" without telling us what it was

we're thinking things through just fine - you're the one who's refusing to think about this

we're saying that has powerful as this is, it wouldn't be 100% effective - that would make it surveillance based on magic, not technology
posted by pyramid termite at 5:33 AM on March 14, 2009


That comes to 19 gig a frame uncompressed. 80 terabytes a day uncompressed.

Storage is easy. You'd want compression, because you need to downlink this. 20GB/2secs works to 160GB/min, or 1.3Gb/sec. That's a pretty hefty, but not implausible, data rate -- modern TV sats push that level, broken into many channels and polarizations, but a multichannel system could easily move the data down.

You'd use more than one camera, though. This setup makes a good general search system, but you'd want something with a higher resolution that you could point at a given target and monitor at a higher color depth/frame rate.

Also -- what wavelength? It's going to be a real bitch to monitor, say, the UK from FL650 if you can't see through clouds.
posted by eriko at 6:02 AM on March 14, 2009


More like human deviousness. The Pentagon trots this thing out whenever budget cuts threaten. They know it's ridiculous, and they know it'll be laughed out of Congress, but it diverts attention. It's the military who invented the concept of "cannon fodder" after all.

Ah, the ol' shell game. "Look! Shiny object in this hand!" Meanwhile, the other hand...
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:11 AM on March 14, 2009


Zeppelin rules!
posted by punkfloyd at 6:34 AM on March 14, 2009


You know who else liked blimps?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:10 AM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Blimpy?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:14 AM on March 14, 2009


Blimpopotamus.
posted by cashman at 8:17 AM on March 14, 2009


I just want to go on record in this thread as saying I strongly oppose this. Some day when my children and historians ask how it all went so wrong, at least my dissent will be documented here.
posted by banished at 8:20 AM on March 14, 2009


Yeah, but that could never become the case with a whole nation, could it?

Who is this George Orwell? I don't think I've ever heard of him. I asked my friends, and they say they've never heard of this person either. Wikipedia doesn't turn anything up, so I think this person "George Orwell" doesn't exist now and never existed. He was probably made-up by some paranoid person with something to hide.

It was lovely talking to you fellow citizen, have a blessed day...
posted by fuq at 8:43 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just want to go on record in this thread as saying I strongly oppose this. Some day when my children and historians ask how it all went so wrong, at least my dissent will be documented here.

You mean your incautious remarks will be here to serve as a cautionary reminder to all those who wonder about why the Zeppelin took you away.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:53 AM on March 14, 2009


If you're in Manhatten, the thing would struggle to track people because of the subway

Until they add cameras to every subway entrance and exit.
posted by oaf at 12:45 PM on March 14, 2009


Update: Project Phase II
posted by ook at 2:32 PM on March 14, 2009


Okay guys, here's how we make sure this plan never gets off the ground (sorry).

1. Head over to BoingBoing and other bastions of steampunkery
2. Convince people to work for the Pentagon
3. They will naturally be drawn to the project: "Capital! A government-sponsored dirigible!"
4. They will then proceed to bog down the project by adding brass, wood, all kinds of pneumatic tubes, unnecessary gauges and dials, impractical uniforms, and a steam-powered engine to the blimp, not to mention driving their coworkers crazy with Victorian accents and terminology.
5. If step 4 doesn't frustrate the Pentagon enough to cancel the project, the steampunk infiltrators will still be the first to volunteer to pilot and crew the blimp.
6. Estimated time before the blimp's official mission turns from "surveillance" to "air piracy:" 10 minutes.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 5:18 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


The "view from directly above" problem can be solved. If you combine this blimp with shadow gait analysis, then you get around that issue.

And that's just one approach. There will be thousands of other clever ideas. Arguing that installing a surveillance infrastructure isn't a problem just because the technology for total awareness isn't quite ready yet seems rather silly. Once we have the surveillance hardware in place, the software will be easy to upgrade.
posted by formless at 6:02 PM on March 14, 2009


Many years ago I remember reading in obscure UFO literature that one explanation for UFO phenomena was super-massive blimps which the Air Force had kept secret. This paper argued the typical signs of a UFO encounter made more sense if the aircraft was a blimp larger than any known blimps. It sorted of explains the light formations moving far, far faster than current aircraft, doing physically impossible maneuvers, and the utter silence indicating a non-combustion-based propulsion. The paper said the airship's primary purpose would be large scale transport. So maybe this new blimp project is based on those supposed UFO airships?
posted by archae at 7:55 PM on March 14, 2009


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