From The Pope To Trump: The Israeli Surveillance Balloon Protecting World Leaders
An Israeli surveillance balloon is following the every move of some of the most powerful leaders around the world. When Pope Francis visited Colombia this September, the white air balloon was closely tailing him. It was also around to protect US President Donald Trump when he visited Israel earlier this year and when former US president Barack Obama flew in for the funeral of the late Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2016.
Named the Skystar 180, the surveillance system by the Yavne-based RT Aerostats System adds an extra layer of security, surveying the scene from an elevated vantage point.
The balloon is a small, highly mobile and tactical aerostat system for mid-range surveillance with a radius of five kilometers (3.1 miles). It has sophisticated day and night cameras able to identify suspicious movement and is being used for defense and security purposes by policy, military and security teams for public safety. The stabilized helium balloon, tethered to a ground system and Portable Ground Control Station (PGCS) is steered by trailers or pickup trucks.
The balloons have also been successfully deployed at concerts, world summits, demonstrations, the Fifa World Cup in Brazil and even the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, according to RT Aerostats System. The company hopes it will be among a number of security strategies deployed at the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Convenient, cost effective and dependable
The Skystar 180 comes equipped with digital video cameras that stream footage in real time for security and police personnel in a control room. They can carry a payload of up to 40lbs (18 kgs) and provide surveillance from an altitude of up to 1000ft (300 meters).
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RT’s other offerings include the large Skystar 300 surveillance blimp and the mini Skystar 100 (which can be carried in a backpack), but it is the Skystar 180 that RT CEO Rami Shmueli says is ideal for VIP protection.
Shmueli, a former head of the balloons department in the elite IDF intelligence Unit 8200, says the reason the Skystar 180 is ideal for personal security is because it’s the perfect size for emergency management, crowd control, counter-terrorism missions and search-and-rescue efforts.
“Everything you need is packed into this system,” he tells NoCamels, “We did not invent the aerostat. It’s been used since the First World War. But we built a system designed to be used by normal people – not engineers. We took a large system, managed to compact it, and we fly relatively small aerostats, with heavy loads,” he says, explaining that only two people are needed to operate the system, which can be airborne for up to three consecutive days at a time.
It’s also cost-effective, says Shmueli, as RT offers its clients the option of paying by the hour rather than buying the system. At $18 per day for the basic operation of the balloon, according to a September report in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot citing RT, it appears more economically advantageous than hiring a surveillance drone for several hundred dollars an hour.
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“This is the best way to show the clients what they can get out of the system, before they spend the money, spend more than their budget, or get permission from their bosses,” Shmueli says.
After completing two live demonstrations in India, RT successfully sold their first system to the Indian Border Security Force on October 31st. To date, some 40 surveillance aerostat systems by RT operate in at least 10 countries around the world, including Canada, the US, Russia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Mexico, Colombia and in countries across Africa.
RT has also grown 100 percent between 2016 and 2017, with the addition of a production facility in Texas, and without any funding from the Israeli government or other investors, Shmueli says.
Surveillance and more
In February, Tokyo police hired the company to secure the Tokyo Marathon, and the balloon will be presented in Japan as part of the SEECAT: Special Equipment Exhibition & Conference for Anti-Terrorism in 2018. Shmueli is hoping to see between five and ten of his balloons deployed at the 2020 Olympic Games.
In 2015, RT signed a contract with the Israel Police to have the balloons operated by RT personnel at select civilian events like large football games, demonstrations and music concerts. That same year, the Municipality of Jerusalem purchased three systems from RT to spot riots in the city, shortly after a wave of unrest erupted following a series of stabbings and car-rammings. The Times of Israel reported at the time that some Jerusalem residents complained of a loss of privacy on social media, but that police immediately noticed a decrease in levels of unrest and ordered more balloons.
The RT Aerostat System has also used by Israel’s military, specifically during the summer of 2014 when Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West bank, and in that same year when Israel and Hamas fought a bloody 50-day war in the Gaza strip known as Operation Protective Edge.
More recently, RT’s Skystar aerostat was deployed in Mexico in September by RT’s American subsidiary company to help search for survivors in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake that left almost 400 dead, and was also recently chosen as a provider for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates responses to natural and man-made disasters.