|Written by Mark Lineberger|
|Wednesday, 12 January 2011 00:00|
A contractor that trains people to use large balloons for the military cleared a hurdle last week after the Camp Verde Planning and Zoning Commission recommended a use permit for operation of a training base.
Dateland Proving Grounds, a research and development arm of Gilbert-based STARA Technologies, wants to run a training center in Camp Verde to teach people how to use and maintain aerostats, large balloons about the size of a tractor trailer.
The balloons, equipped with cameras and other sensors, are used by the military in Afghanistan to serve as eyes in the sky to help protect the troops serving in forward operating bases.
Dateland Proving Grounds runs a training center in Dateland, but Camp Verde’s mountainous terrain is much more similar to the actual conditions and geography in Afghanistan.
Doug Powell, a Dateland representative, made the case for his company before the commission last week.
The enemy kept an eye on the base prior to the attack, Powell said, and knew when surveillance units like unmanned aerial drones weren’t in operation.
While the attack was eventually repelled, Powell said the military was determined to prevent something similar from happening again.
“We use the technology of the past combined with the technology of today,” Powell said.
So far, the company has deployed 22 aerostat systems in Afghanistan, which are in the sky 24/7 to detect insurgents and improvised explosive devices.
“I can’t even say how many lives they’ve saved,” Powell said.
The company is looking to set up operations on a 15-acre plot of land east of McCraken Lane and north of State Route 260 owned by the Camp Verde Sanitary District. The land is currently being leased to the Town of Camp Verde at a negligible cost as part of an agreement between the town and district, which helped secure funding for a new sewage treatment plant.
The company ideally would like to operate a training center for three to five years, Powell said, and would bring as many as 300 trainees a year to Camp Verde and employ 15 to 30 people.
Those people would be staying in Camp Verde hotels and eating in Camp Verde restaurants, Powell said. The site would consist of temporary structures like trailers and generators that would leave no impact on the land after the site is shut down, Powell said.
If the Camp Verde Town Council follows the commission’s recommendation to approve the center, residents could expect to have a balloon in the skies above town several hours a day and occasionally at night, Powell said.
The company currently has a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly balloons at 1,000 feet above the ground, but Powell said the company would like to get that extended to 2,500 feet if possible.
The balloons are tethered to a ground station and can be brought down fairly quickly, Powell said, if needed. The camera equipment focuses on motion, Powell said, and would likely observe cars on the highway and occasionally people on nearby forest land.
The commission members expressed concern over potential privacy violations. The company has policies in place to prevent abuse of the cameras, Powell said. Nothing is recorded, and trainees are monitored by supervisors. Still, if the center is approved, the commission wants the company to deliver monthly reports to the town detailing any violations of the camera policies.
“There’s no intention of looking in anybody’s backyard,” Powell said. The company may also look at a potential agreement to use the balloons to help out in case of local emergencies, like a missing child or hiker.
Opposition to the project came largely from residents in the Lake Montezuma and Beaver Creek area, where the Beaver Creek Regional Council sent a letter against the potential facility. Privacy concerns and potential flight hazards were concerns voiced at last week’s meeting.
Others, like Commissioner Howard Parrish, said if the balloons save even one soldier’s life, the project was worthwhile.
None of the balloons have broken free of their tethers at a training facility, Powell said, and only one has broken loose under combat conditions in the field.
In Dateland, Powell said the balloons were visible from around five to seven miles away.
The commission voted 6-1 in favor of the permit for the center, with Commissioner Jim Hisrich opposed. Hisrich expressed concerns during the meeting about how the company would ensure privacy of area residents would not be violated.
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