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Blimp plays Big Brother at the Olympics

The Swiss-owned Skycruise blimp is Athens' eye in the sky

(Keystone)

As the Olympics get into full swing on the ground, a Swiss-owned airship is keeping a careful watch over them from the air.

The 61-metre-long surveillance Zeppelin dominates the skyline above Athens and has become a controversial feature of the Games.

Greek human rights groups have attempted to ground the all-seeing, all-hearing spy ship, claiming it violates their privacy rights.

The helium-filled “Skyship 600” is owned by Skycruise Switzerland, which has its headquarters in Lindau near Zurich.

It carries a crew of 12, including specially trained Greek police officers, and is expected to patrol the skies for about 16 hours per day.

The airship forms an integral part of the SFr1.5 billion ($1.2 billion) security operation, involving 70,000 men and women, to prevent terrorist attacks at the world’s most important sporting event.

It is mounted with dome-shaped sensors, including “sniffers” to guard against chemical attacks, and ultra-high resolution cameras, capable of providing detailed images of people and objects on the ground.

The infra-red gyroscopic cameras can easily pick out the number plates of cars 500 metres below, allowing suspicious vehicles to be tracked and identified day or night, however bad the weather.

The blimp’s microphones are so sensitive that perfect recordings can be made of mobile phone conversations.

Under attack

The Zeppelin is filled with non-combustible helium, stored at low pressure, so even if it were to come under attack from conventional firearms, bullets would do very little damage.

Skycruise technician Edwin Almanzar told swissinfo that it would probably take a missile to shoot it down.

The airship – along with the hundreds of security cameras installed throughout the capital – has already come under fire from various quarters in Greece.

“Big Brother is watching us,” ran the headline in the Greek daily paper, “Ta Nea”, last month, when the airship first took to the skies.

One human rights group sought a restraining order, arguing that the blimp, known in Athens as “the floating spy”, breached their privacy rights.

Terrorism

Skycruise owner Christian Schulthess said the case had now been postponed until after the Games. He told swissinfo that he was proud to be part of the fight against crime and terrorism, despite the furore.

“The mayor of Athens, Dora Bakoyannis, told me that crime has decreased by 21 per cent since our zeppelin was launched,” he said.

The blimp is one of two Skycruise airships deployed at the Olympics; American news broadcaster NBC is using the second.

The Swiss firm had to beat off American and German competition to win the contracts.

Schulthess said he had been in two minds about taking the two ships out of Switzerland at a time when tourist trips were booming at home, especially after disappointing company figures in 2003.

But he said the decision to lend a hand at the Olympics was part of a strategy to put Skycruise on the map internationally – a decision he hopes will pay off in the long run.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

Key facts

Skyship 600 is part of a hi-tech security surveillance system costing SFr391 million.
The total security budget is SFr1.5 billion, reportedly five times more than was spent in Sydney.
Unlike a helicopter, the blimp is relatively quiet and can hold its position for hours.
The airship is part of an electronic web of more than 1,500 cameras, sensors and other devices linked together over a secure communications network to the police command centre in Athens.

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In brief

Greece has hired a hi-tech Swiss-owned surveillance blimp for the Olympics and Paralympics from August 13-29.

The airship arrived in Athens on July 11 at the end of a difficult, weeklong journey across the Alps from its airbase in Buochs, central Switzerland.

It is an important part of the security umbrella for the Athens Olympics, but civil rights groups say it is too intrusive.

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