Solar Powered Military Blimp Has Rough Day

Well, that didn’t go as planned.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin was counting on a solar-powered, unmanned communications blimp in development for the U.S. Army to float from its Akron, Ohio, mooring to 60,000 feet above Earth. And then to stay there for several days. Instead, two hours and 39 minutes after this maiden launch, the blimp was down in southwestern Pennsylvania. Not so good for an otherwise interesting project touted as being “designed to hover 12 miles above the earth’s surface for extended periods of time” and “demonstrate advanced new technologies and capabilities for keeping American soldiers safer through improved communications.”

unmanned solar-powered military blimp, HALE-D, Lockheed Martin

image via Lockheed Martin

Loockheed Martin said it decided to bring down the blimp – known as HALE-D, for High Altitude Long Endurance Demonstrator – because after reaching 32,000 feet, “a technical anomaly prevented the airship from attaining its target altitude.” So home base in Akron sent a signal to the blimp to begin releasing helium and air. Lockheed Martin called what followed a “controlled descent,” according to the Associated Press, but the final result was pretty grim: images captured by a Pittsburgh-based news helicopter show the silver blimp in a heap atop a forest of trees.

unmanned solar-powered military blimp, HALE-D, Lockheed Martin

image via Lockheed Martin

The good news was, nobody was hurt. Lockheed Martin pointed that out afterward, as it looked for the silver lining in its failure to get well above the clouds.

“While we didn’t reach the target altitude, first flights of new technologies like HALE-D also afford us the ability to learn and test with a mind toward future developments,” said the company’s Dan Schultz. “We demonstrated a variety of advanced technologies, including launch and control of the airship, communications links, unique propulsion system, solar array electricity generation, remote piloting communications and control capability, in-flight operations, and controlled vehicle recovery to a remote un-populated area.”

The company said it would evaluate HALE-D’s unhappy experience, learn from it, and move forward in its efforts to improve the military’s ability to communicate in remote areas – such as in Afghanistan – where mountainous terrain frequently interferes with communications signals.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Anonymous

    Hi folks,nu00a0 So in exchange for 150 million dollars of taxpayers money,u00a0Lockheed Martin have burnt half a dozen trees and polluted a stream with toxic chemicals, after their giant kids balloon was torched a few days after the crash. I don’t understand why the US Air Force gave them the contract in the first place, they are not an airship design, engineeing or operating company. The US Army has had the good sense to award the vehicle part of the LEMV program to Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd in Blighty and they should also be given any remaining HAA funding to develop their Strat Sat design, which will work as intended.nu00a0 Regards JB (Airship & Blimp Consultant 3w hybridairship dot net and Gasbags comedy 3w hybridblimp dot net )

    • LT

      The LEMV is not for high altitude, HAV would not be able to run two programs on this scale. They have been working on the Hybrid airship design for years with NO contracts until June 2010.nWhy do youu00a0constantly over hype this company, there are many unanswered questions on the performance of a hybrid airshipu00a0design,u00a0such as load exchange for cargo carrying. The requirements for long term ground handling etc.u00a0 There is no published data on these issues, but a vague idea that the hybrid airship solves all the problems that have kept the airship as a side show in the world of transportation for a generation.u00a0 u00a0

      • Anonymous

        The development of the design for the LEMV involved a core team that were working in the field of airship design for over 25 years.u00a0Designing a hybrid air vehicle does not produce a good result unless the design team have the type of background that the one at HAV Ltd does, as it is far too different to normal aircraft design both in aerodynamic and stress analysis terms. nu00a0 The general method applied by UK aerospace companies faced with developing a new type of aircraft, like Concord or the Harrier jump jet (Developed into the AV 8B) is to find the very best designers and give them the time they need to produce a result. In effect they throw brains and time at a problem, rather than just personnel numbers and money. Computers don’t help much as most of the scaling factors involved are not fully understood at present and even wind tunnel results are only of limited interest. That is why HAV Ltd are now leaders in the field and they most definitely could run two programs at once. If you have the designs correct and know how to do the actual engineering tasks involved, then the rest is just a matter of funding.

        • Anonymous

          I forgot to say that the LEMV is a medium altitude (FL 200) hybrid, but they do have a Strat Sat design available, which is a HAA (High Altitude Airship) in addition to the design rights to the AT10, which is the most economic high tech small blimp around and was designed for training pilots for the much bigger HAV series, advertising or patrol work.u00a0nu00a0 They are very busy in Cranfield at present, but you will be hearing more about the civil HAV series and the new AT 10 training blimp just after first flight of the LEMV.

    • Ericthomas

      PTDS…look it up