Images of an airship might evoke some long past 1920s phenomenon deemed too dangerous or too impractical and brushed aside for different flight technologies. But no technology should ever be considered down and out. The distinctive spire on the Empire State Building, originally intended as a mooring mast for dirigibles, is now copied on many other skyscrapers as a matter of course and style. It was only a year and a half ago that I talked about an Army request for proposals for an airship drone.
Lockheed Martin just flew their HALE-D (that’s high altitude long endurance) a little earlier this week on July 27th, 2011. It only flew to 32,000 ft before coming down in Pennsylvania unexpectedly but should be capable of achieving 60,000 ft altitude. I talked about Boeing’s Phantom Eye UAV which supposedly can hang out at 65,000 ft. Neither aircraft is making any major promises on endurance yet, though that is the bread and butter of this operation.
The eventual end goals for UAVs are many. They’ve been testing out unmanned helicopters as cargo carrying aircraft for a while now. Unmanned ground vehicles could be used to detect and disarm roadside bombs as well as to carry supplies through hostile areas. One big reason for the push for longer endurance aircraft is not just the advantages of constant surveillance and reconnaissance but also the possibility of the aircrafts serving as part of a larger system of sensor and communications arrays.
But like many things that begin with a military application we could see airships, if successful, move into the civilian sphere. Where they are slower than commercial aviation they are much more luxurious, much more fuel and energy efficient, and of course environmentally friendly and possibly part of a future of more sustainable methods of transport for people or cargo. If you have a few minutes, go watch them roll out Lockheed’s HALE-D for flight. It’s a short video but the scale completely amazes me. It’s nice to see something so large and ambitious being done even if it is a blast from the past.