The Pentagon intends to spend $400 million to develop a giant blimp which will reach an altitude of 65,000 feet and remain airborne for 10 years. The dirigible will be filled with helium and powered by an innovative system that uses solar panels to recharge hydrogen fuel cells.
“It is absolutely revolutionary,” Werner J.A. Dahm, chief scientist for the Air Force, said of the proposed unmanned airship — describing it as a cross between a satellite and a spy plane. The aircraft will provide intricate radar surveillance of the vehicles, planes and even people below.
The project is supposed to reflect a shift in Pentagon planning that is more about the intelligence and surveillance operations, and less about expensive high-tech weapons.
Of course, it’s hard to write about the 450-ft-long craft without giving a nod to the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, one that took thirty-six people’s lives when the airship went up in flames in New Jersey.
But at 65,000 feet and with long observation times, the U.S. military would have a better understanding of an adversary’s movements, habits and tactics, officials said. “It is constant surveillance, uninterrupted,” Dahm said. “When you only have a short-time view — whether it is a few hours or a few days — that is not enough to put the picture together.”
Also, at such a high altitude not only would it be nearly impossible to see but it would be beyond the range of any hand-held missile, and safe from most fighter planes. “Being able to observe threats [and] understand what is happening is really the game-changing piece here,” Dahm said.
The Air Force has signed an agreement with DARPA to develop a demonstration dirigible by 2014. The Pentagon has not yet awarded a contractor to build the prototype.
Source: LA Times
The airship surveillance and telecommunications platform will be called the High Altitude Airship (HAA). Operating above the jet stream, it can survey a 600-mile diameter area and millions of cubic miles in airspace.
The HAA will offer all of the same capabilities as satellites but at a fraction of the cost for cost, deployment and operation.
From gizmag, “The HAA will be built using high-strength fabrics to minimize hull weight. Lift is provided by helium and leakage, as well as migration of air and water vapor into the helium enclosure, will be minimized by the envelope design. A 15kW thin-film solar array will generate all power required on-station and store it in a 40 kWh Li-ion battery for use by the payload (up to 50lbs) and the 2kW lightweight all-electric propulsion units”
U.S. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has been chosen by DARPA to build, test and fly a scaled down model of the HAA. It will be built at the company’s Akron Airdock,