We almost had a giant robot spy blimp, but the project was mismanaged, and now we may never get a cool airship:
Airships fought on the front lines for nearly a century. Hundreds were built for use in World Wars I and II. The U.S. Navy, one of the last major military airship users, finally retired its fleet of patrol blimps in the 1960s and replaced them with airplanes and helicopters. For nearly 50 years the idea of lighter-than-air weaponry lay dormant, giant abandoned hangars in California, New Jersey and North Carolina the only evidence of its glorious past.
Then the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and found itself hunting elusive insurgents in crowded Iraqi cities and the vast Afghan countryside. Bad guys could hide out for days or weeks before striking. Planes, copters and even unmanned drones lacked the endurance to wait out these patient attackers.
So the Army installed video cameras on simple, tethered balloons and sent them thousands of feet into the air to watch over combat outposts. It was a small conceptual leap to untether the airship, add motors and remote controls and use them to patrol vast swaths of hostile territory for potentially weeks at a time — far longer than any manned aircraft or winged drone can manage.
And cheaper, too. Because of their buoyancy and relative simplicity, airships are highly fuel efficient and easy to maintain and thus cheaper than heavier-than-air craft, in many cases. A jet fighter like an F-16 can cost $20,000 or more per flight hour for fuel and repairs. Large airships generally cost as little as a third as much per hour.
With a budget of more than $200 million, JIEDDO teamed up with the Air Force and Mav6, a Virginia-based aerospace start-up, to develop the Blue Devil II unmanned airship starting in 2010. Blue Devil would be a traditional blimp, its lift provided entirely by light, expansive helium gas. But on the inside, Blue Devil would pack some of the most sophisticated — and expensive — sensors and communications hardware ever developed.
By contrast, the Army wanted a somewhat more complex airship with less complex gear. The LEMV would be a so-called “hybrid airship,” which gets its lift from a combination of helium and also a flattened body that acts somewhat like a wing. Starting out, the LEMV’s cameras and radios would be roughly the same as those already used by Army drones.
LEMV and Blue Devil had similar technology and aims and began at around the same time; they couldn’t help but compete for funding. Moreover both new airships were supposed to be ready for combat trials in Afghanistan in 2011. The frontline testing would be expensive: $190 million for a year’s flying for just a single airship, according to one estimate. It wasn’t at all clear that Congress and the Pentagon would be willing to fund both.
After two years of work costing more than $200 million, Blue Devil was 95 percent complete, inflated with $350,000 worth of helium, gently bobbing in Mav6′s North Carolina hangar awaiting the installation of cameras and radios.
That March the Air Force abruptly pulled the plug on Blue Devil, citing weight growth, schedule delays and cost overruns. “It doesn’t make sense,” one Mav6 employee mourned. The tiny company would later divest all its aerospace activities.
Blue Devil’s demise left LEMV as the military’s only major airship program. But the Army airship was suffering all the same problems that had plagued the Air Force model, albeit in near-total secrecy. The Air Force had publicly criticized Blue Devil’s troubled development. By contrast, the Army and Northrop cheerily reported only steady progress on LEMV despite repeated delays. “We’re about to fly the thing!” Northrop spokesman K.C. Brown, Jr., crowed in May 2012.
Six tons overweight, tens of millions over-budget and months late, the first LEMV took off for its debut flight that August. For 90 minutes the football-field-length airship motored at low altitude over the forests and fields of central New Jersey, returning as the sun was setting. Although meant to be robotic, for the initial flight LEMV had a pilot aboard.
“LEMV was designed, built and flown in a short 24 months, a considerable accomplishment for a vehicle of this scale and complexity,” Northrop boasted in a statement — as though a mere six-month delay (it was actually nine months) weren’t a total disaster for a program sold on the promise of an 18-month development.
Couldn’t you prototype this concept with a cheap hydrogen blimp, existing surveillance package, and off-the-shelf R/C components?