LONDON -- Leonardo has completed a first round of studies into converting the British-developed Airlander airship into a surveillance platform and is now in discussion with a number of potential international customers to take the project forward, according to company officials.

"We have looked at the types of sensors we could fit, where they would be situated on the platform, and what the integration issue could be," said a Leonardo Airborne and Space Systems spokesman in the UK, talking just hours after the Airlander 10 had completed its first flight.

Leonardo Airborne and Space Systems, formerly known as Selex ES, has been privately funding the initial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) scoping work in partnership with Airlander developer Hybrid Air Vehicles.

Radars, electro-optical and electronic-warfare systems are among the capability packages scoped so far.

Airlander has a payload capacity of up to 10,000 kg (22,050 lbs) and an endurance of five days if manned, longer if unmanned. The airship uses lighter-than-air and aircraft technology to generate lift.

Lockheed Martin is developing a rival airship to the Airlander and earlier this year signed a letter of intent with Straightline Aviation to deliver 12 airships starting 2018 for cargo-carrying duties.

The British company sees cargo lifting to remote sites, passenger travel, communications and defense roles as being among the applications for the Airlander 10. There is also a much bigger Airlander 50, which is still on the drawing board.  

Hybrid Air Vehicles and Leonardo had been hoping to secure a deal with the British Ministry of Defence to test a sensor package, but that prospect has fallen by the wayside, at least for the moment.    

"We are obviously keen to offer the capability to the UK for trials and demonstration and we are in regular contact with the MoD, but there is nothing concrete at the moment," the Leonardo spokesman said. "The scoping has proven that in terms of payload capability and flexibility, it would be well suited to MoD requirements; for example providing search and rescue in the Mediterranean."

The lack of British interest has seen the companies refocus their efforts on the international market.

"We are exploring opportunities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ISR trials with a number of potential export customers," said the Leonardo spokesman. "We have got increased interest from other governments and defense  organisations globally."

An earlier version of the airship secured a place in the Northrop Grumman-led long endurance multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV) program for the US Army, but the project was cancelled -- although not until test flights had taken place in the US.

The vehicle was later sold back to Hybrid Air Vehicles and modified and updated to become the Airlander 10, which took off from Cardington airfield, England, on Wednesday for a 19-minute test flight. The demonstration saw the world's largest air vehicle climb to a height of 500 feet and reach a speed of 35 knots.

In a separate surveillance-platform move Aug. 17, the British MoD announced it had ordered a third Airbus Defence and Space-developed Zephyr-S unmanned air vehicle to add to two machines ordered in February.

The solar-powered UAVs can fly for up to 45 days at a time and can operate at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet.

The UAVs, called "pseudo satellites" by Airbus because they fly on the edge of space, will take part in operational concept demonstrator trials starting 2017 to explore their potential for use by special forces and others in communications and other roles.

The MoD said they had ordered the third Zephyr to allow two airframes to be tested simultaneously and demonstrate operational handover to show that the capability could be sustained indefinitely.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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