Airship Programs - Not So Buoyant, Says GAO

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(Bad) timing is everything in aerospace. At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, airships looked to be the answer to demands for persistent, "staring-eye" surveillance. But problems developing the systems - including, surprisingly, the decades-old technology of building a lighter-than-air vehicle - means they are coming along just as the window of opportunity is closing.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) tells a heavy tale of lighter-than-air development and procurement troubles in a new report on Pentagon aerostat and airship programs. Here are some of the highlights:

ISIS (Concept: Lockheed Martin)

ISIS - DARPA's $506 million Integrated Sensor Is Structure program is developing a persistent stratospheric airship with an active-array radar built into the envelope and performing air and ground surveillance and tracking. "ISIS has experienced technical challenges stemming from subsystem development and radar antennae panel manufacturing," says the GAO. DARPA has delayed airframe development to focus on radar risk reduction. "During this period the ISIS team will develop and airship risk-reduction plan and conduct limited airship activities," says GAO. Will it fly? Our guess - no.

LEMV (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

LEMV
- The US Army's $356 million Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle program is 10 months behind what was planned as an 18-month program - "due to issues with fabric production, getting foreign parts through customs, adverse weather conditions causing the evacuation of work crews, and first-time integration and testing issues," says the GAO. Also the hybrid airship is 12,000lb overweight because of issues with the tail fins and subsystems. This reduces on-station endurance from 21 days at 20,000ft to 4-5 days, says the GAO, so the Army plans to operate instead at 16,000ft, where duration should be 16 days. The vehicle made the first of 33 manned test flights in August, but Army plans to deploy the LEMV to Afghanistan are up in the air. Will it deploy? Our guess - not likely.

Blue Devil 2 (Concept: MAV6)

Blue Devil 2
- The US Air Force terminated its $244 million persistent-surveillance airship program in June, at which point the Blue Devil 2 was running at least a year behind its schedule to deploy to Afghanistan in September. technical problems included overweight tail fins that failed structural testing, rendering the airship unflyable, says the GAO. There were also problems scaling the flight control software from a smaller airship to the much larger Blue Devil 2. The airship will not deploy and will be stored instead. Will it resurface? Our guess - never.

JLENS - The US Army's Joint Land-Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor system uses two large tethered aerostats carrying surveillance and targeting radars. In September 2010, "an aerostat accident resulted in the loss of one of the JLENS platforms. The accident, as well as recent system integration challenges, led to a decision not to procure production units," says the GAO. Instead of 16, the Army acquired just two aerostats for development. Will it come back? Our guess - maybe.

HALE-D (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

And the list goes on. HALE-D - the high-altitude airship demonstrator crashed on its first flight in July 2011, its envelope and solar cells were destroyed and its payload damaged by fire during recovery operations. There is no money for continued demonstration. HiSentinel - in November 2010, the high-altitude, solar-powered airship had a propulsion failure 8 hours into a planned 24-hour flight. There is no money for continued demonstration.

Are airships back? Our guess - maybe not...

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