Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane.
It's . an aerostat - a product born in the Colorado Springs area that's flying high above Interstate 25 in north Denver.
For three days this week, the Colorado Department of Transportation is testing one of SkySentry LLC's aerostats, a helium-filled cross between a balloon and kite, to monitor traffic from 400 feet above I-25.
If the idea flies, it will help the 12-year-old company continue its shift away from its defense contracting roots. SkySentry's customers have included the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, but CEO and President Charlie Lambert said that model wasn't sustainable. As the military started to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Lambert said, the demand for big aerostats started to decline.
"We had a downturn when we left the army support," said Lambert, whose company employs four to 11 people, depending on its contract load."We started our transition in 2012; we decided to benefit the civilians."
To do so, however, the company had to alter some of its aerostat product lines to make the devices smaller, lighter and less expensive for the civilian market.
Since then, SkySentry, which has an office at 11605 Meridian Market View in Falcon, has sold its smaller, 3-cubic-meter aerostats to archaeologists, geologists and farmers, Lambert said. Other potential customers are police officers, firefighters and other first responders in the region who might use aerostats to get a big-picture look at the extent of wildfires or other emergency situations, he said.
The aerostat that CDOT is testing has 45-cubic meters of helium gas and can lift about 36 pounds.
It's the first time that a SkySentry aerostat has been used to monitor traffic - but that's not the only first tied to the product.
"It is the first department of transportation in the country to use a blimp to monitor traffic," CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said.
The aim is to monitor areas that existing traffic control cameras cannot access, Ford said.
The cost of three days of testing, which started Tuesday, is $10,000, said Ryan Rice, CDOT division of transportation systems management and operations director. It would have cost the department about $100,000 to get cameras into the spaces that are easily visible to the aerostat.
After the test, CDOT will determine if the aerostat was more effective and efficient than existing cameras in detecting traffic incidents and helping relay information to drivers, Rice said. If the testing period is successful, the department will look into a long-term project. Each aerostat would cost about $50,000.
Although SkySentry has been in business for more than a decade and still gets "intermittent" military contracts, partnering with CDOT has put Lambert's company in the spotlight.
"This is the most visibility we have ever had," he said.