Airships have fascinated man from the very onset of the history of aviation. Even after the 1937 curtains on passenger use of airships, researchers have continued to develop more feasible and effective airship solutions. From advertising blimps to heavy lifting, from research and exploration to multi-intelligence collection systems, airships have made a big time come-back. Unmanned airships have attracted much attention from aerial surveillance experts in the recent past. One of the greatest challenges in aerial surveillance is that of monitoring volatile area or inaccessible terrain. This can be overcome by using unmanned aircrafts, if it were not for the prohibitive cost of deploying conventional unmanned aircrafts.
With neither global conflicts nor demand from defense agencies showing any signs of abating, the accelerated interest in robot airships is understandable. Here are some of the most exciting developments in the field of unmanned surveillance airships.
WSGI’s Argus One
The Argus One from Sanswire (now known as World Surveillance Group Inc.) has an unique design that allows it to adjust its rigidity in flight based on aerodynamic requirement. Not only do the new propulsion system and more powerful engine give it more power, but the unique segmented design gives the Argus One an intelligent interface with its environment.
Using creative solutions like an outer envelope that is initially deflated and inflated to full size as the airship ascends and the outside atmospheric pressure decreases, the HiSentinel is capable of carrying larger amount of surveillance equipment, thus making it one of the most successful experiments to date. Like the HALE-D, the HiSentinel too is developed under the US ASMDC. The third of the latest generation of unmanned surveillance airships, the HiSentinel80 has already been tested to reach design target altitude, speed and duration.
Raytheon’s JLENS Aerostat
Aerostats are moored surveillance balloons that can go up to 15,000 feet and carry payloads of up to 1000 kg. The 74 meter long JLENS Aerostat from Raytheon IDS is a system of tethered balloons that can go up to 10,000 feet and mainly detect, track and offer support logistics for cruise missiles as well as detect air, missile and surface threats.
Raytheon’s RAID System
The earlier Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment (RAID) system is a combination of surveillance airships and tethered aerostats, supplemented by fixed towers and relocated masts that was first deployed in 2003 in Afghanistan. The RAID systems offer much lower level surveillance than JLENS, but have met with reasonable tactical success in forward operating bases in volatile terrains such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lockheed Martin’s HALE-D
The HALE-D (high altitude long endurance demonstrator) from Lockheed Martin is an unmanned airship that can go up to an altitude of 60,000 feet powered by solar energy. Developed in conjunction with the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s (SMDC/AFSC), the HALE-D is claimed to be not only more versatile and eco-friendly, but also more cost effective than other similar offerings. Even though recent testing did not live up to design targets at the time of reporting, company officials were pleased with the performance of communications links, propulsion system and the solar array electricity generation features. They had all been tested to design parameters.
Given the rising cost of fuel and the risk to life in volatile terrains, unmanned surveillance airships have emerged as the most viable solution. With innovative technology and design coming together to provide eco friendly solutions that cost less than 100th of conventional aerial surveillance, and with global defense agencies throwing the weight of their R&D budgets behind them, unmanned airships are all set to take over the aerial surveillance skies.