The United States Army has ordered a huge hybrid airship longer than a football field to watch over battlefields in Afghanistan by the end of 2011, according to the airship's builder Northrop Grumman Corporation.
The company has received a $517 million Army contract to build up to three of the huge military airships, called the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicles (LEMV). Such airships would serve as surveillance stations at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) above sea level and could stay on watch for as long as three weeks at a time.
A LEMV would also have the capability to carry a 2,500-pound (1,113 kg) payload, and still zip along at 92 mph (148 kph) if necessary. The 302-foot (92-meter) airship would typically have a cruising speed of just 34 mph (54.7 kph).
That represents a staying power for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over a longer period of time than what today's robotic drones such as the Predator or Reaper can provide. [7 sci-fi weapons today.]
"Our offering supports the Army's Joint Military Utility Assessment that this disruptive innovation must meet the Army's objective of a persistent unblinking stare while providing increased operational utility to battlefield commanders," said Alan Metzger, Northrop Grumman LEMV program manager.
A heavy-lift configuration could transform the LEMV into a sky transport that carries up to 15,000 pounds (6,803 kg).
The U.S. Army has also conducted military airship field trials for a tethered balloon that would carry radar to help weapon systems track and shoot down cruise missiles.
Unlike blimps or lighter-than-air vehicles, hybrid airships such as the LEMV are heavier-than-air and require both vertical thrusters and forward movement to stay aloft. But their incorporation of lighter-than-air gas for buoyancy allows them to stay up in the air for much longer than traditional aircraft or drones.
To get the U.S. Army airship flying, Northrop Grumman has teamed up with Hybrid Air Vehicles, Ltd. of the UK, which has a hybrid airship platform called HAV304. It also plans to work with Warwick Mills, ILC Dover, AAI Corporation, SAIC, and other companies from 18 U.S. states to build LEMV
Northrop Grumman hopes that the LEMV could eventually also provide for homeland defense as well as military surveillance over distant battlefields. But the airship would first have to undergo tests and demonstrations in Afghanistan after the 18-month target deadline.
Civilian airships have also witnessed resurgence in popularity. E-Green Technologies' Bullet 580 recently became the current world's largest airship by inflating to its full length rivaling a 23-floor building.