A commercial customer could be announced within 12 months for a new heavy freighter version of a hybrid airship in development for the US Army, Northrop Grumman said.

The commercial market appears to be evolving rapidly even as a Northrop/Hybrid Air Vehicles team is still assembling the first long-endurance multi-intelligence vehicle ordered by the army a year ago.

"This week we have begun parts of the inflating process," said Alan Metzger, vice-president and integrated product team leader for LEMV and airship programmes.

Nineteen sections that comprise the structure of the balloon will be inflated over a period of several weeks, he added.

The army could buy as many as three of the optionally manned hybrid airships, which rely on both buoyancy and aerodynamic forces to achieve lift.

An undisclosed customer within the army intends to demonstrate that the LEMV can perch at 20,000ft (6,100m) over a three-week period with a 1,133kg (2,500lb) payload that includes four high-definition electro-optical/infrared sensors, a signals interceptor, radar and three communications relay antennas, Northrop said.

If the LEMV is successful, it could replace the equivalent of up to 25 fixed-wing, medium-altitude surveillance platforms, Northrop added.

The same vehicle with a few modifications is already being offered to the commercial freighter market.

The cargo version can be designed to carry up to 18,143kg for 1,000nm (1,185km). Required design changes include a new freight floor added to a payload bay, an enlarged fuel/freight module and hover pads added to the landing skids, Metzger said.

Northrop's interest in the commercial market is moving forward after its chief competitor - the Lockheed Martin SkyTug - teamed with a Canadian start-up to produce a hybrid airship for the commercial cargo market. Meanwhile, the US Air Force has also signed an $82 million contract with MAV6 to develop a surveillance airship with one-week endurance.

"Lots of people have ideas, and they're all good ideas," Metzger said. "What we have is a vehicle."

Source: Flight Daily News