01 October 2009

DOD Wants Drone Blimps In Afghanistan

The Department of Defense is procuring a single prototype airship, called a "Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV)" for $90 million from Lockheed Martin that will serve as a low altitude version of spy satellites for use in Afghanistan. It will be delivered within 18 months.

The LEMV is required to stay aloft at 20,000 ft. for 21 days carrying a 2,500-lb. payload, a combination of either a multi-camera wide-area airborne surveillance (WAAS) sensor or a ground moving-target indication (GMTI) radar plus a signals-intelligence system and multiple electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors.

Lockheed Martin's design is a 250-ft.-long hybrid airship, which derives 80% of its lift from helium buoyancy and the rest from aerodynamics so it can be launched and recovered without the traditional airship ground infrastructure. The vehicle will be optionally piloted: manned for self-deployment and unmanned for surveillance missions.

In other words, someone will fly it to Afghanistan, after which it will be an unmanned drone.

Existing heavier than air drones can't stay in the air as long, and spy satellites are further away (and hence have less possible resolution) and provide data only in fixed daily windows of time. By flying high, the airships should be too far away for most weapons that insurgents in Afghanistan, like the Taliban, have at their disposal.

The technology isn't ambitious.

Airships have been used in the past for military purposes, and the U.S. military has considered buying more on and off for decades. If this prototype proves itself, it could also clear the way for using airships as medium weight, medium speed transports that would be especially useful in areas with limited secure road and rail infrastructure, and where there would otherwise be a need to move cargo from land to water to land transportation. Improved explosive devices (IEDs) targeted at supply convoys have been the bane of U.S. forces in Iraq, causing a large share of all casualties. A drone supply airship could solve that problem in a wide variety of conflicts

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