High-tech blimps earning their wings

Aerostats are usually cost-efficient, always on reconnaissance alternatives for military and private applications.

tcom aerostat
The US Army this week showed off its latest high-tech blimp laden with powerful radar systems capable of detecting incoming threats 340 miles away.

 The helium-filled blimps or aerostats are designed to hover over war zones or high-security areas and be on guard for incoming missiles or other threats. The Army wants them to reduce some of the need manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights.

The aerostat demonstrated this week is known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Sensor System (JLENS), which is designed to fly up to 10,000 feet. According to GlobalSecurity.org., the$1.4 billion JLENS is a large, unpowered elevated sensor moored to the ground by a long cable. From its position above the battlefield, the elevated sensors will allow incoming cruise missiles to be detected, tracked, and engaged by surface-based air defense systems even before the targets can be seen by the systems.

The elevated sensors have a couple important characteristics: They are less expensive to buy and operate than comparable fixed-wing aircraft and they can stay aloft up to 30 days at a time providing 24-hour per day coverage over extended area.

While the JLENS flew this week, other Army aerostats have been tried out in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For example, the Washington Post reported last week that an aerostat with round-the-clock video and sound surveillance capability was parked several thousand feet above Kabul to monitor last week's elections in Afghanistan.

The Post article went on to say aerostats have been used since 2004 at forward operating bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most have crews of five working in 12-hour shifts. Their ability to have a continuous view of a vast area has made them extremely useful in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border.

The aerostats are built by TCOM and Raytheon which holds the prime contract to build at least 12 aerostats.

A number of private aerostats are also flying over the country, though not always welcome.

Airships have gotten a lot of attention this year.  For example, Military scientists in April got the go ahead to build a roughly 1/3-scale model of a stratospheric airship that if completed in-scale will basically house a floating 15-story radar system capable of detecting and tracking everything from small cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to soldiers and  small vehicles under foliage up to 300 kilometers away.

The model is no slouch either and will consist of an airship containing an X-band radar system that will be roughly 100 square meters in size  (half the size of a roadside billboard) and a UHF-band system that will be approximately 600 square meters in size (roughly equivalent to the size of a soccer field).

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics a $400 million contract to design, build, test and flight-demonstration of the 1/3-scale airship that will be large enough to validate manufacturing and calibration for the objective system and will provide an early glimpse of the air and ground target tracking performance possible with an operational system. Demonstration flight tests are expected to occur in FY 2013, Lockheed said.

The model will test Raytheon's new, low-power density radar which is made up an active electronically scanned array antenna that will transmit on UHF and X-band from within the airship.

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