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.”
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.
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.