VIDEO: Northrop Grumman wins race to revive hybrid airships with $517 million order

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Northrop Grumman intends to spark a hybrid airship revival with a $517 million contract awarded today to deliver three slightly heavier-than-air aircraft to the US Army for deployment to Afghanistan.

Partnering with UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles, Northrop captured the award for the long-endurance multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV) programme despite a strong rival bid led by Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division.

"This disruptive innovation must meet the Army's objective of a persistent unblinking stare while providing increased operational utility to battlefield commanders," says Alan Metzger, Northrop's LEMV programme manager.

 
 ©Northrop Grumman

Unlike blimps, hybrid airships require propulsion to takeoff and forward movement to remain aloft. Once popular as military surveillance and cargo aircraft, the US Navy retired its last hybrid airships in the 1950s.

Nonetheless, Gary Ervin, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector, says in a statement that the contract award "moves Northrop Grumman into this rapidly emerging market space of airships for the military and homeland defense arenas".

Hybrid airship has enjoyed a perhaps unlikely renaissance within the Department of Defense. Modern designs appear to deliver the unique ability to persistently observe targets across hundreds of kilometres - and remain within the earth's atmosphere.

As the army has pursued LEMV, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched the Integrated Sensor is Structure (ISIS) programme, in which Lockheed's Skunk Works aims to replace moving target radar systems -- such as the E-3 airborne warning and controls system (AWACS) and the E-8 joint surveillance target attack radar system (JSTARS) -- with a hybrid airship.

Meanwhile, the USN's research community has expressed a long-term interest in delivering massive amounts of cargo using hybrid airships of enormous proportions.

Northrop's LEMV contract marks the first test of the effectiveness and safety of modern hybrid airship design in combat conditions.

The army plans to deploy Northrop's unmanned hybrid airships, designated the HAV304 [see flight test video below], to Afghanistan within a year of contract award.

LEMV requirements call for an aircraft that can remain aloft at 20,000ft for three weeks without landing. Each aircraft also must carry multiple intelligence payloads weighing up to 1,134kg (2,500lb), provide up to 16kW power and achieve a maximum speed of 80kt (148km/h).