We're all huge -- huge! -- fans of blimps here at Defense Tech HQ. So when the word came down from Defense Daily that the Marines are starting to use aerostats as communications relays in Iraq, it brought a chorus of huzzahs in the newsroom.The blimps, called the Marine Airborne Re-Transmission Systems (MARTS), will receive signals through a fiber-optic tether. Then, the airships will transmit messages up to 100 miles away, via UHF and VHF frequencies. Troops on the ground, as well as pilots in the air, will be able to communicate through the blimps.One airship, first tested in February, is being deployed to Iraq right now (exactly where, the Corps won't say). A second is being readied. The Marines are scrounging up $14 million to buy four more. It may sound like a lot, but it's cheaper than building radio towers -- and having Marines protect those towers.A MARTS blimp "can run for two weeks before it would need refueling, and can remain afloat in winds up to 50 mph," according to DD. With a combination kevlar/mylar skin, the aerostat can even "handle small arms fire... function[ing] with a 4-inch diameter hole."MARTS was made by Columbia, Maryland's TCOM LP, which built some of the border patrol blimps that are now watching over southern Arizona and the Gulf of Mexico. And the Army already has a pair of aerostats in Iraq, looking out for insurgents. So it's only natural that "the Marine Corps is looking at putting surveillance equipment on future generations of the blimp," says DD. "It would be just a matter of adding another box to include infrared radar."
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