The first balloon looks like an ordinary weather balloon, but has certain peculiarities, William Kim, an expert on surveillance balloons at the Marathon Initiative think tank in Washington, told AFP. However, its “charge” is quite large – an indication of the electronics it contains and is powered by solar cells for steering and gathering information.
The balloon also appears to have modern guidance technology – the US military has not yet used such technology for the air.
According to Kim, thanks to artificial intelligence, a balloon can adjust its altitude just by detecting changes in the air to take the desired direction. “In the past, you either needed a line or you sent the balloon into the air and it just flew where the wind took it,” said the US expert.
Thanks to advances in the field of artificial intelligence, balloons without their own propulsion system are now possible. The control by altitude adjustment also includes a radio link to the home base.
Balloons also have clear advantages over satellites. Unlike these, balloons are far more difficult to attack, Kim said. On the one hand, this is because they can hardly be detected by radar and their payload can easily be overlooked.
Long about spy target
Balloons would also have the advantage that they can remain over a spy target for a relatively long time – in contrast to satellites, which are constantly in orbit and are used by spy agencies to take photos. “These things can stay in one spot for months,” Kim said.
Despite alleged espionage intent, the balloon specialist considers a malfunction to be “a real possibility”. “These balloons don’t always work perfectly,” he said. Normally they acted at an altitude of 20 to 30 kilometers, but the spy balloon over the USA only flew about 14 kilometers high.
Launching a balloon isn’t as easy as it might sound, Kim said. “These balloons use helium.” If the balloon were shot at, the helium would escape “only very slowly”. “These aren’t things that explode or burst when you shoot them.”
Kim pointed out that in 1998 the Canadian Air Force sent F-18 fighter jets to shoot down a rogue weather balloon. “They fired a thousand 20mm cannon shells at him. And it was still six days before he finally came down,” Kim said.