By Alicia Tarancon
The U.S. Army has launched the debut flight of its massive Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), a souped-up blimp designed to fly continuously for 21 days and provide full surveillance of an area.
The LEMV was launched Tuesday from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. The test flight lasted about 90 minutes.
The all-seeing airship is longer than football field and taller than a seven-story building, according to maker Northrop Grumman. Its shape separates the 21st-century "hybrid air vehicle," as Northrop Grumman calls it, from the blimps that have flown over sporting events for decades.
The LEMV is aerodynamic, with a shape closer to an airfoil than an elongated football like classic blimps. So while old-school blimps stay aloft because of the helium inside, the LEMV uses the helium and its shape to achieve lift.
Northrop Grumman has a $517 million contract to build three airships for the Army.
The first test flight included two pilots, but in the future, the Army hopes to have unmanned flights.
"I think the Army sees this as truly an exciting breakthrough," said Dave Nagy, vice president of business development for military aircraft systems at Northrop Grumman.
He says the Army will benefit from the LEMV because just a handful of these airships will be able to do what no other monitoring system can do. They can stay up in the air for long periods of time and can cover a significant area of ground. And the LEMV will not only be able to scan the ground for insurgents, but it may also have other uses, like hauling supplies and precious cargo to troops.
At a time when the military is looking for more cost-effective options for intelligence and surveillance gathering in places like Afghanistan, fueling the blimp will cost approximately $11,000 for a 21-day period of service.
Coincidentally, the debut flight took the LEMV right over the site of the fiery Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937. Nagy says the location, however, was deliberate.
"It's one of few locations that has hangar infrastructure for this size of vehicle," he said.
For now, Northrop Grumman will continue to test the LEMV from Lakehurst, New Jersey, where the company will continue to "expand the flight envelope," Nagy says. He said this technology will allow the military to be more flexible in the future.