A GIANT balloon, equipped with sophisticated radar equipment, will watch over Singapore from early next year.
The 55m-long helium-filled teardrop, known as an aerostat, will hover at around 600m - more than twice the height of UOB Plaza One, Singapore's tallest building. It can spot hostile threats from as far as 200km away, double the distance covered by the Republic's ground radars.
It can scan up to Malacca for straying light aircraft, for instance, and detect small boats coming in from Indonesia's Pekanbaru.
The information will be shared with other security agencies such as the coast guard.
The balloon, which Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday called "the protector in the sky", will be tethered to the ground inside a military camp, but Dr Ng did not disclose where, or how much it will cost.
Experts, however, said the blimp should not be surrounded by tall buildings or be near areas with plenty of flying activity.
Dr Ng said that it will improve the country's surveillance capabilities "significantly", by filling in the gap caused by tall buildings here blocking Singapore's existing early-warning systems.
"In order for you to see far, you have to be either very high and you make sure that no buildings block you... but we are also building up 40-storey buildings.
Soon, I expect maybe even 50-storey or higher buildings," said Dr Ng, at a ceremony to recognise personnel whose ideas cut cost or improve productivity.
It will also be cheaper to launch and operate the aerostat, which will be run by the Republic of Singapore Air Force, than fly Gulfstream 550 surveillance planes round the clock. The balloon will save $29 million in operating costs a year, said Dr Ng, stressing that "it can be airborne 24/7". "It is unmanned, cost effective, and sustainable."
Singapore is the first South- east Asian country to get such a high-tech balloon, which has been used by military and law enforcement agencies in the US, Britain and India since the 1980s. US troops use aerostats with cameras to spot insurgents in Afghanistan.
Associate Professor Ng Teng Yong, acting head of the Aerospace Engineering Division at the Nanyang Technological University, does not rule out the possibility of Singapore installing cameras on its own aerostat, which might raise privacy concerns.
But he called it a "game-changer".
He said: "It will allow you to see a lot more, for a much longer time, but at a lower cost."
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