Army tests blimp as eye in sky
By Sgt. 1st Class Antony M.C. Joseph
October 5, 2004
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 5, 2004) - The Army experimented last week with the capabilities of a free-flying mobile aerial reconnaissance platform over the Washington, D.C., area.
The project melded already available technology, a "blimp," and the Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment System, known as RAIDS. During the week-long demonstration, the airship flew a 24-hour endurance flight over the Pentagon and also supported a joint-force protection mission.
The demonstration was conducted by the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor Project Office, known as JLENS, in partnership with ARINC Engineering Services LLC and the American Blimp Corporation.
"The A-170 Airship is regulated by the FAA to fly up to an altitude of 10,000 feet, but can fly higher if needed," said Raymond W. Berhalter, a principal analyst at ARINC. "Even at that height, using the RAID systems surveillance cameras and sensors, the airship platform can provide a clear and detailed view of the activity on the streets below and yet stay out of the range of many weapon systems."
Though the airship was flown by a pilot, Berhalter said it can be adapted to fly unmanned.
The airship is an extremely survivable form of air transportation, said Pam Rogers, spokesperson for the JLENS project office.
"The helium-filled balloon portion of the airship is not highly pressurized," Rogers said. "Gunshots won't burst the airship -- it can actually remain buoyant for hours after suffering such a puncture."
Furthermore unlike the Hindenburg, which was filled with hydrogen, this airship is filled with helium, she said, which is an inert gas and not flammable.
Along with the force protection and surveillance capability, cargo lift is another potential of the airship.
"The airship can be used to transport materials and equipment across international distances and potentially land on water, making it a viable alternative to other more expensive means of transportation," Rogers said. "Propelling the helium-filled balloon uses less energy than conventional jet engines and is therefore more cost effective."
The RAID system is currently deployed in support of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The existing system, however, is a combination of cameras and surveillance equipment on high towers and tethered blimps.
"Height, endurance, maneuverability and stealth are key to good aerial reconnaissance," said Glenn R. Beach of the American Blimp Corporation. "By using a RAID-equipped airship, the military could fly a controlled, quiet orbit over an area like Fallujah, day or night, and be able to locate insurgents placing explosive devices or setting up ambushes.
Information from the airship could then be sent via a ground station to Soldiers on patrol, Beach said. He explained that the ability to move from area to area allows the airship to follow targets and at the same time make it more difficult for the enemy to locate the ground station.
"And, at about $5 million, it is a lot cheaper than other surveillance aircrafts," Beach said.
Although the Army has no current plans to purchase airships, Rogers said this technology, RAID on an airship, could represent "the next step toward a mobile force protection platform and capability."
(Editor's note: Look for a story with more photos in a future issue of Soldiers magazine. Sgt. 1st Class Antony Joseph is a staff writer for Soldiers magazine.)
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