By the end of 2011, three U.S. Army airships could be on their way to the Middle East.
The LEMVs (Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicles) will slowly skim the skies over Afghanistan, providing military surveillance to troops on the ground. Last week the U.S. Army signed a $517 million agreement with Northrop Grummanto build the aircraft within 18 months.
Longer than a football field, the new LEMV, Condor 304, will not be your grandmother's blimp, but a robotic spy ship giving "a persistent unblinking stare" to the Earth below for weeks at a time. Though not intended for combat, the craft will be adaptable to various missions, with apparently easy sensor changes.
Aiding in the design is British company Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV). The HAV304 from which the Condor 304 may be modeled is shown here:
HAV's new special sauce was the idea of "hybrid" ships which would not, like their illustrious predecessors, actually be lighter than air. Some 60 to 80 per cent of their weight would be supported by the buoyancy of their helium, and the rest by other means: vertical thrust from the engines during takeoff and landing, and aerodynamic lift generated by the ship's forward motion while in transit.
Traveling at altitudes of 20,000 feet for 21 days, the LEMV could possibly provide non-stop ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capability to the military for a 2,000-mile landscape. No pilot necessary.
According to the Army, in about 10 months they will inflate the new LEMV and then test it in Yuma, Arizona.
The HAV304 is one of many military airship designs created in recent years. For instance,Lockheed Martin's P-971 prototype (which reminds me of Ghostbuster's Stay-Puft marshmallow man) is shown below. This "suck ship" used hovercraft technology in reverse to steady it to the ground.