Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It's a bird; it's a plane; is that the Hindenburg?

It seems that looking back may be the way forward. At least in terms of unmanned surveillance aircraft. Drones are shiny, compact and just generally neat technology…kind of like the iphone. But boy is that service plan expensive. When it comes to long term practicality and durability, that bulky blackberry is still preferred by industry professionals.

Enough with the analogy (it sounded good in my head) and getting to the point, I am talking about a blimp…or the preferred euphemism, an “airship”. Early this year the Army issued a request for proposal (RFP) for a “lighter than air” surveillance aircraft—the Long-Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV). In June the bid was awarded to Northrop Grumman. Less than six months later, NGC PR made sure that everyone who matters knew that the blimp is already ready for inflation and testing, to be used in theatre this time next year. This is almost an unheard of turnaround for any aircraft procurement. But that is not the story here. After the initial airship was designed, the surveillance technology is pretty much off the shelf from past aerial severance vehicles with only a few mounting tweaks.

What is interesting though, is the project’s contributions to several of the Pentagon’s long term goals. First of all, relatively speaking, this LEMV is a cheap investment for the pentagon. A half billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at. But what the pentagon gets is a whole lotta bang for its buck. The technology developed is 1) cheap to operate, b) cheap to maintain, and c) built to serve a diverse set of potential surveillance needs in the future, and then some. Plus, it is a blimp. I mean, come on.

This is not your grandfather’s blimp though…not so flammable. The LEMV will not only drive itself, but will take off and land autonomously (it can also be piloted remotely or with a pilot aboard should the need arise). This airship will float at an altitude 20,000 feet for 3 weeks on one tank of gas. How is that for fuel economy? Especially considering it is the breadth and width of a football field and 7 stories high. Also, did I mention it is a hybrid? Most of the “floating” power will be from helium while the get up and go to take off and land will use $25,000 in diesel. That is less than the 5 hour flight it takes to get a 747 from DC to LAX at today’s gas prices. The consumable parts of the airship are primarily the cameras and sensors (including some cutting edge IED detection sensors). A single LEMV will do the job of 12 Reapers during that same duration (but without refueling or remote pilots), providing constant imagery and movement data over a broad and complex terrain.

The airship will also have substantial long term use. When Afghanistan is said and done and Army has little use for the blimp, this airship and its updates will be able to serve at home in a border protection capacity as well as through humanitarian and disaster relief missions. The surveillance equipment is easily moved on and off of racks, and without all those cameras the LEMV can carry a payload of supplies or even people up to 3,500 lbs (the payload can be doubled with a few simple modifications). And although no one is talking about it now, I would imagine that the “modifications” to weaponize these is also relatively simple.

This next part may be a long shot, but one can hope. The speed and agility with which this airship came about gives me hope that the “cost-plus” culture of the old military-industrial complex may be changing. It is also a part of a new wave of multi-use technology coming out of defense contractors looking to broaden their customer base beyond the money tree that was the federal defense budget. In doing so, these companies are playing a greater role in the free market as opposed to bleeding dry overburdened defense procurement projects like the F-35.

So, the relatively old technology that is the blimp may prove to have a bright future. The LEMV is multi-utility, relays valuable intelligence to troops on the ground, is relatively environmentally friendly and does not cost the Army an arm and a leg to operate. With the first LEMV assembled, NGC and competitors have already come up with updates to increase the value of airships including higher altitude capabilities and solar panels. Take that DoD budget cuts.

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