The balloons are carrying high-tech radar designed to track vehicles at any time of the day, during any type of weather, while moving at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet. They are also intended to "provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats," said a Guardian report.
The tests reportedly received a license from the FCC to operate from mid-July until September.
According to Federal Communications Commission documents, FCC will '[c]onduct high altitude... tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.'
The tests have been commissioned by the US Southern Command (Southcom), which is responsible for disaster response, intelligence operations and security cooperation in the Caribbean and Central and South America, said the Guardian report. Southcom is a joint effort by the US army, navy, air force and other forces, and one of its key roles is identifying and intercepting drug shipments headed for the United States.
The report notes that Southcom’s balloons are carrying small, satellite-like vehicles housing sophisticated sensors and communication gear. One of those sensors is a synthetic aperture radar intended to detect every car or boat in motion on a 25-mile swath beneath the balloon.
The balloons also have advanced mesh networking technologies that allow them to communicate with one another, share data and pass it to receivers on the ground below.