On Tuesday, not far from the beaches of New Jersey, was a sight hundreds of millions of dollars and years of development in the making: the Army’s football-field-size robot spy blimp took to the air for the first time at a military base in Lakehurst. The 90-minute flight of the Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), manufactured by U.K. firm Hybrid Air Vehicles and U.S. aerospace giant Northrop Grumman and allegedly captured in the video above, is only the beginning of a months-long test program; the lighter-than-air ship won’t head to a warzone until next year at the earliest. But it’s still important news. For years, the Pentagon has tried and failed to get next-generation airships off the ground. No longer.
“The first flight primary objective was to perform a safe launch and recovery with a secondary objective to verify the flight control system operation,” Army spokesman John Cummings said in a statement. “Additional first flight objectives included airworthiness testing and demonstration, and system level performance verification.”
“All objectives were met during the first flight,” Cummings added.
Provided further testing goes smoothly, the LEMV could deploy to Afghanistan for combat trials in early 2013, floating thousands of feet over the battlefield for, Northrop hopes, entire weeks on end, scanning for insurgents. K.C. Brown, Jr., Northrop’s director of Army programs, told Danger Room the LEMV could also pull double duty, hauling military cargo out of landlocked Afghanistan as part of the Pentagon’s war drawdown. It might make for quite the lighter-than-air mule: Northrop claims the LEMV has enough buoyancy to haul seven tons of cargo 2,400 miles at 30 miles per hour.
The spy blimp’s inaugural sortie had been pushed back several times; turns out, combining a giant airship with satellite-based remote controls and the latest high-tech sensors is more difficult than Northrop thought it would be. When the Army cut the LEMV’s $500-million development check back in 2010, the ground combat branch expected the propeller-driven, helium-filled airship would begin airborne trials in early 2011 and deploy just a few months later.
Northrop and the Army repeatedly pushed back the initial launch, without ever explaining exactly why. The first flight had been slated for early June, but unspecified problems forced another two-month delay.
The silence over the schedule slippage, and the Army’s eagerness to forgive development snafus, rankled at least one of Northrop’s competitors. Other aerospace companies were less crafty — and less lucky — in their attempts to pump some life into the long-defunct military airship market.
Back in 2006, Lockheed Martin came close to scoring a potentially multi-billion-dollar contract to develop the Walrus cargo airship. But at the last minute the military balked and zeroed out funding. A defiant Lockheed continued refining its airship designs using its own funds and, in March 2011, finally sold its first modern lighter-than-air vehicle to a Canadian cargo company — but likely for a fraction what the military model would have cost.
Meanwhile, tiny, Virginia-based startup Mav6 spent $200 million building the Blue Devil 2, a 370-foot-long spy blimp for the Air Force. When Mav6 ran into problems with the Blue Devil 2′s electronics and massive tail assembly this year, the flying branch first scaled back then, back in June, abruptly cancelled the entire program, ordering Mav6 to deflate the mostly-complete aircraft.
In late June Danger Room visited Mav6′s cavernous, World War II-vintage airship hangar in North Carolina. There a Mav6 executive lamented the waste of $350,000 worth of helium, which was set to begin leaking from the Blue Devil 2 and cannot be recaptured. The executive said his company was treated unfairly compared to a certain, unnamed large aerospace firm — cough cough — that seemed to get greater leeway from its Pentagon overseers. The executive called the Air Force a “hostile government customer.”
The politics surrounding LEMV may be a bit shady, but the airship’s technology is impressive all the same. More than 300 feet from tip to tail, the airship’s goal is to hover for three entire weeks at a time in surveillance mode — in addition to its prowess at hauling cargo. And the LEMV burns a tenth as much fuel as a traditional, heavier-than-air airplane for the same task. It can carry video cameras, radars, electronic eavesdroppers and radio datalinks for transmitting information to analysts on the ground.
Moreover, the LEMV is designed to be “optionally manned,” meaning it can carry a flight crew or be steered by ground-based operators, like a drone. For Tuesday’s flight, the airship had a crew aboard, but in combat an armada of 18 LEMVs could be controlled by as few as a dozen forward-deployed people, Northrop claims.
Lockheed and Mav6 have every right to be displeased. But for Northrop and the Army — and for taxpayers who could end up paying a little less for high-tech air power — LEMV’s first sortie is a triumph. “Additional manned flights will resume following a planned and very detailed inspection of the vehicle,” Cummings said. Here’s to hoping LEMV stays aloft — and on schedule.