Last week, a specter rose slowly into the air above Lakehurst, New Jersey. Some seventy five years after the Hindenburg disaster, a new lighter-than-air vehicle is holding out the promise of a second revolution in unmanned air systems (UASs). The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) could well be the next big thing not only in aerial surveillance but in long haul transportation as well. Unlike the Zeppelin’s of old or even current-generation blimps, the LEMV is aerodynamically-shaped and powered to provide the best combination of lift and maneuverability. Able to carry payloads of up to 15,000 lbs and stay in the air for 21 days, a single LEMV can do the job of dozens of today’s UASs at a fraction of the cost.
With all these systems in the inventory one might wonder why yet another system is needed. The U.S. military has filled the skies with heavier-than-air UASs from the small, short-range, hand-launched Raven through the larger, longer-range Shadow and Predator to the very-large, long-endurance Global Hawk. Equipped with a variety of sensors, including full motion video cameras, the UAS fleet is producing a deluge of information. Armed UASs such as the Reaper have made an appearance on the battlefield and more are likely to follow. The Navy is pursuing an unmanned carrier-launch and recovery surveillance and strike (UCLASS) vehicle.
The LEMV offers three advantages over current generation UASs: endurance and payload. The ability to carry heavy payloads to relatively high altitudes and loiter for a long time, allows the LEMV to provide ISR coverage of extremely large areas. While the LEMV is relatively slow even for a UAS, once deployed over its target area, it will provide extremely cost-effective surveillance. It can also carry communications packages that will allow it to support ground force operations even in very rough country. Traditional UASs provide a more responsive capability.
The U.S. military is moving to a two tier system of UASs. For relatively benign air defense environments, a combination of airships, blimps and UASs will probably be adequate. For higher intensity air defense environments, the military will have to develop entirely new types of UASs, ones designed from the ground up for stealthiness and maneuverability.
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