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Old 11-05-2010, 09:03 AM
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Arrow Army spy blimp

Northrop’s Huge Army Spy Blimp Floats On


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Northrop Grumman’s ginormous experimental spying blimp is progressing rapidly, the company wants you to know. In barely a year, Northrop predicts, it’ll be ready to test in an “operational environment.”
The Army awarded Northrop a $517 million contract in June to develop a trio of unmanned, seven-story, football-field sized mega-blimps called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicles. If successful, the blimp will stay in the air for up to three weeks at a time, using 2500 pounds’ worth of “sensors, antennas, data links and signals intelligence equipment” to capture still and video images of civilians and adversaries below and send the pictures to troops’ bases. It should work with the Army’s standard drone-controlling system, called the Universal Ground Control Station. And it’s a hybrid, lifted into the air by helium and propelled by four diesel engines.
In Afghanistan, the Army’s Warrior drones provide what intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance experts call “persistent” views — that is, they hover above a given area for long periods of time taking pictures — but the drone can’t stay aloft for anything close to three weeks. One Army official involved with the project judged that it would take 12 advanced Reaper drones to replicate the blimp’s functions.

According to a Northrop statement, the blimp passed three initial tests that judge the feasibility of its design, its ability to talk to a ground station and the success of its software. The company says it’ll inflate the first blimp in the spring and fly it in the summer; all tests are supposed to finish by the end of 2012.
The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle isn’t the only supersized spy blimp in the works. Last year, the Navy announced it wanted blimps that could see across the light spectrum and use laser radar to identify potential targets. C4ISR Journal reported in August that the Air Force has teamed up with the Pentagon’s bomb-stopping task force, known as JIEDDO, to create another mega-blimp specifically to hunt down improvised explosive devices. And Lockheed Martin won a $400 million contract with Darpa last year to build a 15-story blimp (!) called the Integrated Sensor Is Structure, a robo-blimp that can “track the most advanced cruise missiles at 600 km and dismounted enemy combatants at 300 km.” None of these blimps are in the air yet, but somehow the sky feels crowded already.
Illo: Northrop Grumman
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