Security Blimp Tests Surveillance over D.C

A white, whale-size blimp hovered over the nation's capital this week, testing high-tech surveillance gear and unnerving some Washingtonians.

"It didn't have any markings on it. I didn't know what it was doing," said Amy Marks, who works for the National Organization for Women. "It was pretty strange."

The Army leased the 178-foot airship from American Blimp Corp. Sensors and infrared and electro-optical cameras mounted on the craft will test its utility to detect potentially threatening ground movements.

The blimp could provide real-time images for the surveillance of pipelines, shipping channels and ports, according to an Army statement. It also could help catch or deter anyone planting roadside explosives.

James Thiele, president of American Blimp, which is based in Hillsboro, Ore., said he hoped the military's interest was a sign of the long-ignored blimp's renaissance in military circles. It has been proposed for border-security patrols, too, and it could be used in urban counterterrorism surveillance.

Unlike helicopters and other aircraft, blimps can remain in the air several days while consuming little fuel, Thiele said. They're all but immune to puncture wounds, he said, because they're so big and the pressure of the helium that keeps them afloat is so low.

The blimp, which also cruised over Chesapeake Bay this week to test its utility in shipping surveillance, heads to Huntsville, Md., next for further tests.