Watching From Above: The History of Monitoring Balloons

Balloons have often caused fascination on people. The colorful floating spheres on the horizons of Cappadocia might have enchanted, marveled and brought joy to millions. Nonetheless, not every balloon is meant to roam around freely and carry people – some are meant to watch. And not every source of fascination is one that leads to entertainment. History shows that balloons where first invented by chance: the fascination it produced was puzzling, scary even, making it an interesting opportunity for military use – that would latter establish balloons as an important strategic security and surveillance tool. Strange beginnings might lead to greater deeds.

According to historical records, the Chinese commander Zhuge Kongming (181–234 b.C.)was the inventor of hot air balloons. During his last days on a harsh battlefield, out of despair, Kongming designed a light to confuse the enemy: an oil lamp installed under a large paper bag, which floated due to the lamp heating the air inside the bag. The effect was thunderous! The enemy fled the field, frightened by the light glowing in the air, conceiving it as some angry divine force. Latter on, the same floating paper bags would be used as signals, to deliver messages between warriors. And so were born the Kongming Lanterns, now widely used for festive purposes and traditional Asian celebrations.

Two thousand years latter and a bit of secularist culture might make this sound like a folk tale or a far-fetched story, but history is a solid builder on how balloons rose to be more flexible, persistent and cause even more fear than before. Under the refined name of deterrence, or dissuasion – the strategy intended to dissuade an adversary from taking an action not yet started, or to prevent them from doing something that another state desires1– balloons were redeveloped to carry cameras, magnetic sensors, radios, meteorological and telecommunications equipment.

Birds Eye-view of Fort Humaita

Paraguay, 1868

At the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, they started being employed as observation towers. Professor Thaddeus Lowe, a prestigious American balloonist at the time, proposed the use of manned balloons for military application, ledding to the creation of the Union Army Balloon Corps, which served the Union Army between 1861 and 18632. At first, Lowe tried free flight manned balloons, but that led him to the dangerous situations of getting behind enemy lines when drifted by the winds. This made him change his method, from a free flight to a tethered system. Fixed by a cable or a rope to the ground, the balloon has its movement mechanically binded, allowing power to be fed, information gathered or data exchanged from it.  Filled with a lither-than-air gas and not needing to be heated also permitted tethred balloons to perform reconnaissance and artillery correction missions, with both visual signals or telegraphy.

Notable uses were seen in the Battle of Fleurus (Europe, 1794), the American Civil War (USA, 1861-1865), and the Paraguayan War (South America, 1864-1870). The balloons supplied commanders with information on enemy actions, gaining them a good lead on the best attack and defense positions for their armies, while still producing on the enemy the dazzling effect not knowing what a huge spherical mass was doing floating in the air. The effervescence on the prospects of hot air balloons, and latter tethered balloons, turned them into the world’s first airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems.

Barrage Balloons Monitoring

Barrage Balloons

Omaha Beach, 1944

The First World War was a high point for the military use of observation balloons, since both sides of the battlefield extensively fabricated and deployed them. Artillery was capable of engaging targets at greater range than they could on the ground – which was a major advantage on a trench war. In the Second World War, though, the popularity of airplanes, faster and more mobile, overshadowed balloons as an ISR tool. They were largely used as barrage balloons, though, as collision risk creators against aircrafts.

Only in the last 30 years and even more so recently, as threats and technology have evolved and the need for 24/7 ISR has increased – balloons became the best choice again. Helium-filled balloons, technically known as aerostats, answer a simple demand: long term continuous ISR – unlike aircraft-based systems, with little maintenance and much longer flight time. ALTAVE is an example of a frontrunner company on the resurgence on monitoring balloons, developing systems that can stay afloat for 60 days straight,  automatically surveilling pre-selected points and detecting threats through in-house made innovative software. One thing hasn’t changed, though. Balloons keep bringing puzzlement and awe to whatever eyes they befall. Only, now they look back.



2 Hoehling, Mary. Thaddeus Lowe: America’s One-Man Air Corps. Kingston, 1957.

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