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Unblinking surveillance stare: Army's 7-story flying football field-sized blimp

The U.S. Army has a 7-story flying football field-sized blimp with a 21-day unblinking surveillance stare. The LEMV, described as a "Revolutionary ISR Weapon System" completed a successful 90-minute test flight directly over New Jersey where the fiery Hindenburg disaster happened.

When you think about high-tech "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" (ISR) breakthroughs, does a gigantic $172 million blimp immediately come to mind? If not, then join the club. In fact my first thought when learning about the U.S. Army's new blimp was Hindenburg.

It's not fashionable to call this flying spy (hybrid military airship) a "blimp," but a Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV). You are no doubt familiar with the Goodyear blimp that hovers over football games, but the LEMV is almost the size of a seven-story flying football field; it's meant to fly at speeds between 30 and 80 knots without ceasing for 21 straight days while providing an "unblinking" eye of surveillance.

Northrop Grumman has a $517 million contract to build three of these 21st-century robotic airships for the U.S. Army. The first of three had a successful 90-minute test flight last week from the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. This first test flight included two pilots, but the Army intends for the LEMV to be like the Predator, an unmanned flying surveillance machine. Both Northrop Grumman and the Army must like the term "unblinking," as it was used several times to describe the "Revolutionary ISR Weapon System" aka the LEMV.

Defense Industry Daily reported that LEMVs can:

serve as steady communications relays, for instance, ensuring the groups of soldiers in mountainous areas never lose contact with one another, even if they don't have direct line of sight to each other. They can track important convoys, key roadways, or other key infrastructure as semi-permanent overwatch escorts, monitor an urban area of interest to prep for major battles or enforce security, or focus on shutting down border chokepoints.

"This is going to be the longest endurance UAV in the world, it's got the ability to stay up for three weeks with unblinking stare," said Alan Metzger, the director for the airship program at Northrop Grumman. The LEMV is expected to be deployed and hovering over Afghanistan skies by January 2012.

According to Northrop Grumman, the LEMV "will shape the future of ISR." With capabilities of maintaining more than 21 days of an unblinking stare with a 2,750 pound payload, it's supposed to be "Multi-mission capable: persistent surveillance, force protection, counter-drug operations." It needs almost no runway since it's capable of vertical takeoff, can operate at 20,000 feet, has "Radar, SIGINT, Full Motion Video, LOS/BLOS COMM Relay."

Previously the Army News Service reported, "The array of payloads include Combined with an array of payloads - including ground moving target indicator radar, Electro Optical/Infra-Red sensors, communications relay, blue force tracking, signal intelligence, and electronic counter measures - the LEMV will augment existing ISR platforms to provide additional capabilities."

Other technical specs:

The LEMV is intended to provide a possible solution to communications beyond the line-of-sight to the user, signals intelligence collection and almost any other type of payload configuration that meets the power, weight and size requirements. By providing this all-source sensor data to existing ground stations, the data will be available to multiple users and analysts. This interoperability with existing tasking, processing exploitation and dissemination has the potential to improve information-poor situations, mitigating Warfighter gaps and existing shortfalls through multi-intelligence sensor integration.

The LEMV will enable the Office for the OSD to fly the most technologically advanced payloads in the near term as they become available. Northrop Grumman has designed their system to integrate into the Army's existing common ground station command centers, and equipment used by ground troops in forward operating bases. The LEMV could also be used to move heavy equipment while in Afghanistan, a massive advantage over competing UAVs.

The LEMV is "very green." In this press release, Metzger said, "LEMV is longer than a football field, taller than a seven-story building and will remain airborne for more than three weeks at a time, delivering a high level of fuel efficiency. Fuel costs are minimal at $11,000 for a 21-day period of service." However Defense Industry Daily quoted Metzger's statement to The Engineer magazine:

When you do the maths on that you're talking about $20,000 to keep the vehicle in the air for three weeks [DID: 3,500 gallons]. It's vastly cheaper to operate than many conventional aircraft today...Some of the characteristics of our vehicle allow you to make trades between how long you'd like to stay in the air and how much cargo you'd like to carry. We have the ability to trade 23 days to go 1000 miles and carry 15, 20, 30,000 pounds...We're green, we use a quarter of the fuel as the same payload of cargo aircraft...there are fewer moving parts. There's less maintenance.

The high tech blimp's "skin" is made from "a blend of Vectran, Kevlar and Mylar" which "will be able to cope with a reasonable amount of small arms fire from Taliban fighters on the ground." Northrop estimates "that the biggest threat to the craft is weather, where high winds or thunderstorms could buffet the craft."

CNN noted, "The debut flight took the LEMV right over the site of the fiery Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937." Northrop Grumman deliberately chose that location.

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