Last month, the US Army carried out the first flight test of its Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), a new generation of airship that uses motors as well as aerodynamic lift from the shape of the vehicle to fly. Though equiped with several motors, once in position, it relies primarily on helium buoyancy to remain aloft for missions as long as 3 weeks.
Video of the test flight take-off shows the airship rising into the air with very little runway space needed. But the primary benefit offered by airships is the ability to stay airborne for long periods of time. The LEMV can stay in the air at altitudes of 22,000 feet (about 6,700 meters) for up to 21 days. For the military, this allows long-persistence surveilance missions without needing to swap vehicles as often as needed by current fixed-wing drones. Only a small ground crew would be needed to maintain a number of these vehicles in the air. Although this first test flight was carried out with a crew on board, the LEMV is designed to be operated without a crew.
While this is military R&D, and has immediate applications in that realm, there are obvious civilian applications this technology could be put to, as well. Acting as a low-level satellite, an LEMV with sensors could carry out surveys and scientific observation of wildlands, or be used for monitoring croplands. It could serve as a communications relay in the aftermath of a disaster, for example, as a cell-phone tower replacement with line-of-sight to an entire city. For aiding in access to remote regions, “the LEMV has enough buoyancy to haul seven tons of cargo 2,400 miles at 30 miles per hour,” according to the manufacturer.
The Army isn’t the only group working to develop airships, however. According to a recent LA Times article, a number of companies, ranging from small startups to aerospace giants, are all working on a variety of new airship designs to fulfill a range of needs. Airships may not become a replacement for contemporary modes of transport, but can offer an alternative in some cases that is cleaner and more cost-effective than current methods.