Eye-in-the-Sky Blimp Boosts Singapore’s Spying Ability

A missing airplane and a rise in piracy attacks off the coast of Singapore has prompted the city-state to boost surveillance efforts with a radar-equipped blimp over its skyline.

An unmanned helium-filled balloon the length of an Olympic-size pool will be held down by fortified ropes to float 600 meters (2,000 feet) above ground -- more than twice the height of Singapore’s tallest building, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement on its website.

“Both aviation and maritime domains have to be closely monitored in the light of the more recent developments, for instance the MH370,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “So it is paramount for the governments to review the existing capabilities and build new capabilities.”

The search of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in March with 239 passengers on board, has pushed the aviation industry and governments to come up with better tracking systems. Hijackings of small oil tankers by armed gangs are also increasing in the region that’s home to the shortest sea-trade route between the Middle East and China.

Five of the six vessels seized worldwide in the third quarter were in Southeast Asia, according to the International Maritime Bureau and International Chamber of Commerce. Globally, there have been 178 piracy incidents this year, down from 352 in 2011, the group said.

Purely Surveillance

Singapore’s so-called aerostat will be similar to the ones seen at golf tournaments, which help viewers track balls in the air, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in the statement. The radar, operating 24 hours a day, will be capable of monitoring as far as 200 kilometers (124 miles) -- about four times the length of the island.

It’s “purely for surveillance,” Ng said. “It is a protector in the sky.”

The balloon is also used by other security agencies, including the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Singapore ministry said.

The city-state’s plans have prompted public concerns. Following the announcement to the local media, a reader wrote on the online Straits Times report that “being watched everyday...where’s our privacy?”

In addition to the blimp, the Land Transport Authority said last month it had shortlisted three groups to upgrade its electronic toll system to one using satellite technology.

Privacy Concerns

Information from the satellite-based technology shouldn’t be of any concern because the data is “annoynimized,” Singapore’s Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said in Parliament today, responding to a question about privacy rights as it will be able to track the whereabouts of every vehicle.

“Privacy has basically gone out the window,” said Bernard Loo, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, referring to existing technologies including security cameras, Google Earth and Global Positioning System trackers. “There’s nothing private any longer. Everything is essentially going to be out in the open.”

Singapore isn’t unique. In addition to the U.S., Thailand’s army paid about $10 million in 2010 for an airship to help counter a Muslim insurgency in southern provinces bordering Malaysia. Still, the U.S.-built airship has spent most of its life in a hangar in Thailand’s southern Pattani province because of technical faults. It was forced to make an emergency landing in 2011 and crashed again in 2012 during a visit to the region by then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

For Singapore, the blimp may save S$29 million ($23 million) in operating expenses every year, the defense ministry said. It will be high enough that it won’t be blocked by high-rise buildings, Ng said. The blimp option was necessary because the city doesn’t have a mountain tall enough for ground radar to operate effectively, the ministry said.

“At a particular height, it will have a clear line of sight to see our air and sea space,” Ng said. “Singapore is a small island, we are an air and sea hub, and that potentially increases our threat, and we have to take it seriously.”

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