USAF High-Altitude Blimp To Provide An 'Unblinking Eye'

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The U.S. Air Force said recently that it plans to build a 450-foot-long blimp within five years that will hover at 65,000 feet and stay aloft for a decade. The unmanned ship will serve as an aerial platform for surveillance gear that will allow the military to observe wide areas in fine detail. "That lets us better understand how an adversary operates, how to anticipate their actions, how to interpret their intent, and many other things that we need today, tomorrow and beyond," said chief scientist Werner J.A. Dahm, who is overseeing the project.

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, the military's research arm, will start work this year on the Integrated Sensor Is the Structure, or ISIS, a scaled-down version of the blimp, designed to fly for a year. The group already has designed hull material that can withstand temperatures of 150 degrees below zero and retain 85 percent of its fiber strength for 22 years, the Air Force said. Lift will come from helium, and fuel cells recharged by the sun will provide power. Researchers still need to find ways to ensure the blimp can defend itself. The aircraft is too high for most enemy anti-aircraft systems but will be susceptible to missiles and other threats, Dahm said. "We need to assess if the technologies needed to make such systems possible are ready, and we need to learn how to effectively integrate those technologies into practical systems," he said.