Surveillance Blimp Heads Home after Stint at Greek Olympics

Dominique Maniere has spent his life drifting over unfamiliar places: Norway, America, the deserts of North Africa and anywhere else airships are paid to go on slow patrol, carrying giant advertisements or powerful surveillance cameras.

The white-bearded Frenchman is wrapping up a three-month job in Athens, flying a blimp for the Greek police during the Olympics as part of a massive security operation.

While they scoured the city for signs of a terrorist attack, he looked out over Athens' ancient sites and newly built stadiums and infrastructure.

"To fly over Athens, and look at the Acropolis...I never dreamed that I could do that,'' Maniere, a dirigible flier for the past 21 years, told The Associated Press. ``Normally I don't prefer to fly over cities...but it was very nice to fly over Athens.''

The 200-foot long blimp, laden with cameras and sensors, became a daily feature of the city's skyline as it hummed over Olympic venues and hilltop monuments, streaming video of street demonstrations, traffic jams and marathon runners during the Aug. 13-29 games.

Data from the airship was used with images from 1,200 new street cameras, police helicopters and surveillance vans as part of the $1.5 billion security operation that also included the Sept. 17-28 Paralympics. The operation officially ended Oct. 4.

The blimp, operated by Airship Management Services Inc., based in Greenwich, Conn., stayed on while the company discussed potential future business deals.

These include providing security at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, observing the Muslim pilgrimage at Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, and filming holiday destinations for the Greek tourism ministry, company representative Alexander Spyrou said.

Spyrou said the demand for aerial surveillance has grown since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Advertising in America and passenger carriages in Europe have been our bread and butter businesses, but more and more it's being used as a surveillance vehicle. ... It's a reliable eye in the sky,'' Spyrou said.

An increasing number of police forces ask about using the blimps ``for traffic control, pollution monitoring, border protection and coastal patrols.''

He said the helium-filled balloon is a cheap and stable "platform'' for sensors, with advances expected to include unmanned and high-altitude blimps within a few years.

The Athens contract was worth $1.8 million.

Spyrou's firm leased blimps for surveillance and use as overhead billboards for Olympics at Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988 and Atlanta in 1996. The British military has also used the blimps to track the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, he said.