This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
U.S. plans to deploy an unmanned surveillance airship to Afghanistan are moving forward, with a contract for the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) demonstration expected to be awarded by year-end.
Designed to stay aloft for three weeks carrying a heavy payload of wide-area sensors, the airship is becoming a flagship for Defense Dept. efforts to provide unblinking airborne surveillance to defeat the threat from roadside bombs.
With other programs pushing unmanned aircraft to greater persistence and heavier payloads, the Pentagon is coming to grips with the consequence: a torrent of motion imagery that must be analyzed and archived to be of use.
The Pentagon's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) task force has the LEMV on the fast track, with a single demonstrator vehicle to be fielded to Afghanistan within 18 months of contract award. Congress has fully funded the Fiscal 2010 budget request of $90 million for the program.
U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command (SMDC) is to lead the airship program, contracting with an industry consortium now taking final shape.
The consortium is expected to be established by early October, with a request for proposal to follow in November, leading to contract award by the end of December. The airship would fly within 15 months and deploy by mid-2011.
Exactly how the government will interact with the consortium is not yet clear. There are several potential platform providers involved, including Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works and the U.K.'s Hybrid Air Vehicles, both of which are expected to brief SMDC on their proposals in October.
The LEMV is required to stay aloft at 20,000 ft. for 21 days carrying a 2,500-lb. payload, a combination of either a multi-camera wide-area airborne surveillance (WAAS) sensor or a ground moving-target indication (GMTI) radar plus a signals-intelligence system and multiple electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors.
Lockheed Martin's design is a 250-ft.-long hybrid airship, which derives 80% of its lift from helium buoyancy and the rest from aerodynamics so it can be launched and recovered without the traditional airship ground infrastructure. The vehicle will be optionally piloted: manned for self-deployment and unmanned for surveillance missions.