ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Modern descendants of the giant airships of the 1920s hold great promise for filling important slots in the burgeoning homeland security infrastructure, experts said Wednesday.
Lighter-than-air vehicles, whether manned or automated, can remain aloft and operational for weeks, said William Armstrong, Jr., vice president of Airship Management Services in Greenwich, Conn. Armstrong moderated a discussion of the blimp potential hosted by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a non-profit think tank.
"(Current circumstances are) a great opportunity to marry the relatively old technology of buoyant flight with new technology available in today's sensors ... to meet today's challenges," Armstrong said.
Several agencies have shown interest in airships as surveillance platforms, most recently during the rash of shootings around the nation's capital, said Tom Glover, a project manager with Science and Technology International, a Honolulu-based image sensor company. An STI airship involved in U.S. Navy research near Washington was outfitted quickly with a system for spotting gunfire and certified for use, but the arrest of two subjects ended the project, he said.
More complete demonstrations took place during the Navy's Fleet Week in New York City last spring, Armstrong said, as both local and federal law enforcement agents used a Fujifilm blimp to monitor crowd activity. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have also ridden on blimps during recent sporting events, he said.
Airships are far more robust than appearances might suggest, said William Fanshawe, a pilot in the British military and managing director of Skycruiser Airships in the United Kingdom. Most non-rigid airships, such as the Fujifilm blimp, can operate at up to 10,000 feet and remain basically stationary in winds up to about 55 miles per hour, he said. Icing is a minor worry, as the blimp's flexing allows ice to fall off, and gunfire damage causes only very slow deflation.
Blimp-borne surveillance could take the form of either a visible low-altitude presence or unseen patrols at higher altitudes to cover wide areas, said Cmdr. Alfred Elkins of the Navy Warfare Development Command.
"Basically an airship is at one two-thousandths the altitude of a satellite, and it's a great antenna farm," Elkins said. "(At low altitude) it sends a message -- 'I anticipate what (terrorists) are doing, and I will take proactive action.' It's a deterrent and a response."
The nation's concept of homeland security is still too new to nail down the exact missions an airship could perform, however, said David Williams, deputy associate undersecretary for aviation security management at the Transportation Security Administration. New technological developments such as airships could wither on the vine if planners fail to create a national security architecture, he said.
Airship manufacturers might not be able to wait for such an architecture, because commercial operations remain limited in the post-Sept. 11 world, said Ron Hochstetler, a senior systems engineer at Science Applications International, a Washington-area think tank. Hochstetler, who has more than 18 years of experience in developing and building airships, said government agencies should seriously consider funding ongoing research to keep the U.S. airship industry solvent.