Attack of the Airships!

It seems that all of a sudden, everyone has an airship, a blimp or an aerostat (tethered blimp), either manned or unmanned. Two years ago no-one was talking about them, and now fat, boyant, helium filled UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), OPV (Optionally Piloted Vehicles), and MV (Manned Vehicle) lighter-than-air craft fill the skies. I just attended the AUVSI conference in Washington DC, and I saw a lot of blimps and airships.

A quick note: A blimp is a lighter-than-air craft that is propelled by an engine, has an aerodynamic-shaped (teardrop) body, and maintains its shape via internal pressure, like a balloon. An Airship is the generic name for a powered lighter than air craft. A Zeppelin, or rigid airship, has a metal frame, usually of aluminum, that maintains its shape. The vast majority of airships today are blimps. Zeppelins are heavier, but faster.

I think that the reason for all this interest in airships is fueled by the need for persistent survellance - the ability to maintain overwatch of a large area for long periods of time, and this need is created by the use of IED's to attack US troop overseas, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A quick rundown of some new airships:

SAIC: SAIC has announced that they are producing a range of airships from 30,000 to 200,000 cubic feet of helium, and a payload from 200 to 4000 lbs. The design is based on the US Navy's ZPG-3W blimp originally designed by Goodyear, with controls and gondola from the Zeppelin company in Germany. They also included the Zeppelin stern thruster and inverted-Y tail. SAIC is only advertising a max altitude of 15,000 feet, so they are staying well within the operational envelope of conventional blimps.

LOCKHEED MARTIN: LM has a series of airships in various phases of completion - the High Altitude Airship (HAA) - designed to loiter in the stratosphere for long periods of time. It has solar panels on its topside for power. The shiny mirror-like outer skin makes this one particularly striking. The demonstrator flew on July 27th, and reached 32,000 feet.

Sky Tug - About two years ago, LM test-flew the P-791 "hybrid" airship in the skies over Palmdale CA, home of the Skunk Works. This strange craft seemed to be three blimps sewn together to make a large, lifting body aircraft that relied on dynamic (forward flight) lift for part of its load bearing capability. A dynamic lifting airship should be faster, more stable, and be able to carry more weight than a conventional full-buoyancy balloon. Now LM has announced that it has partnered with a Canadian company, Aviation Capital Enterprises, to develop a commercial, cargo aircraft based on the design. We can only wish them luck. Here is a link to the video on Youtube.


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