With the use of airships for passenger transport decreasing in the early 20th century as their capabilities were eclipsed by those of airplanes – coupled with a number of disasters – they were largely resigned to serving as floating billboards or as camera platforms for covering sporting events. But the ability to hover in one place for an extended period of time also makes them ideal for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes, which is why Lockheed Martin has been developing its High Altitude Airship (HAA). The company yesterday launched the first-of-its-kind High Altitude Long Endurance-Demonstrator (HALE-D) to test a number of key technologies critical to development of unmanned airships.
The HALE-D is a sub-scale demonstrator made with high-strength fabrics and featuring thin-film solar arrays serving as a regenerative power supply. Lightweight propulsion units propel the airship aloft and guide it during takeoff and landing as well as maintaining its geostationary position above the Jetstream at an altitude of 12 miles.
The geostationary positioning coupled with modern communications technologies give the airship capabilities on par with satellites at a fraction of the cost. In position, the airship would survey a 600-mile (965 km) diameter area and millions of miles of cubic airspace. It will also be reconfigurable with the ability to easily change payload equipment, making the HAA significantly cheaper to deploy and operate than other airborne platforms to support missions for defense, homeland security, and other civil applications, according to Lockheed Martin.