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The plan to deploy an autonomous, free-flying, surveillance airship to Afghanistan is gaining, er, buoyancy. A consortium led by the US Army's Space & Missile Defense Command is scheduled to be established by October 1 and a contract awarded for the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) demonstration by the end of December.Concept: Lockheed MartinThe consortium will include sensor and system suppliers, and Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works says it will supply the air vehicle - a development of its P-791 experimental hybrid airship flown in 2006 (video here). The company-funded P-791, which flew six times, was 125ft long. The LEMV will be 250ft long, and designed to loiter at 20,000ft for up to 21 days carrying a 2,500lb ISR payload.The LEMV is a hybrid airship - it's heavier than air, 80% of its lift coming from buoyancy and 20% from aerodynamics. Propulsion comes from six thrusters - three per side - powered by individual turbo-diesels for take-off and climb, and electrically from a central turbo-generator for loiter. And it's non-rigid, structural stability results from the three-lobe envelope design. The airship is also optionally piloted - flown manned for self-deployment and unmanned for persistent ISR missions.An air cushion landing system allows the airship to be maneuvered for taxiing and take off, and sucks the vehicle down on to the ground - or sea surface - for landing, loading and unloading.Hanging under the envelope, behind the sometimes-occupied cockpit, is a payload bay 40ft long, 15ft wide and 6-8ft tall - more than enough room to mount either a ground moving-target indication radar or multi-camera wide-area motion imagery sensor, plus a signals-intelligence payload and multiple EO/IR sensors. A single air vehicle is to be built and ready to deploy within 18 months of contract award, LEMV joining an expanding pantheon of persistent ISR options under evaluation by the Pentagon. This is a case of persistence pays, as the Skunks have been pursuing hybrid airships for a long time, for transport as well as ISR - but that's another story...
ar99, SkunkWorks, airship
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