Not so long ago it seemed that the golden age of giant lumbering airships had gone down with the Hindenberg, consigned to less spectacular roles in research, advertising and as a great camera platform above sporting events... but they're making a comeback. Lighter-than-air aircraft are returning to passenger carrying roles in tourism and in recent years we've seen a new-generation of airships put forward as a cargo-lifting solution (DARPA's now seemingly shelved Walrus Project) and even as a corporate air yacht (Aeroscraft ML866). Now the U.S. Army is moving quickly to build a hybrid airship weapons system that will act as a long-duration UAV – a very big, long duration UAV. The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) will be longer than a football field and stay aloft at altitudes of 20,000 feet for more than three weeks at a time providing an "unblinking eye" for surveillance and reconnaissance.
Northrop Grumman has been awarded a US$517 million contract to develop the massive airship and present it for military assessment in just 18 months. The company is developing the LEMV to plug straight into the the Army's existing ground command centers and will provide flight and ground control operations. According to the company release, the LEMV will "operate within national and international airspace" from "austere operating locations using beyond-line-of-sight command and control."
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"This opportunity leverages our longstanding leadership positions in developing innovative unmanned air vehicles, C4ISR weapon systems, and leading edge systems integration, and moves Northrop Grumman into this rapidly emerging market space of airships for the military and homeland defense arenas," said Gary Ervin, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector.
Northrop Grumman is partnering with Hybrid Air Vehicles, Warwick Mills, ILC Dover, AAI Corporation and SAIC on the project.