AMMAN, Jordan — The behemoth hybrid airship formerly known as the Army's Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) is preparing to fly as early as next month in the UK, according to Hybrid Air Vehicles officials.
The airship is longer than a football field and can stay aloft at 20,000 feet.
The LEMV has a new name — the Airlander 10 — and due to subtle changes, a new look, after UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles bought the airship back from the US Army in 2013 without the Northrop Grumman sensor suite that was part of the program.
The Army canceled the program in early 2013 shortly after its first flight, which lasted 90 minutes, due to what it said at the time were technical and performance challenges and limitations imposed by constrained resources. The service had originally intended to deploy the airship to Afghanistan by December 2011, but delay after delay caused the window of opportunity to close.
The hybrid airship is going through ground testing this month and into next "at which point we will start the flight testing," Andy Barton, the company's business development director for commercial markets, told Defense News at SOFEX, a special operations exhibition in Jordan.
The Airlander 10 will operate under civilian flight regulations with tight restriction under an initial airworthiness release which become more permissive as the aircraft gains flight hours.
The first flight will take place at an airfield in Cardington located about an hour north of London. The initial flights will be "relatively" short, Barton said, adding that Airlander will be gradually flying further as the summer proceeds.
"We will probably stay in the UK, but certainly by next year we expect to be going to Europe and the Middle East and there's always a possibility of North America," Barton said. "It all depends on where the greatest interest is."
According to Barton, the US still has an interest in watching what Hybrid Air Vehicles does with the aircraft. As part of the deal to sell the airship back to the company, it had to agree to share data on the aircraft's development progress. The US has been invited to observe the flight testing and has indicated it will accept that invitation, Barton said.
The Airlander 10 is "exactly" the same as LEMV except for two things, Barton explained: "One it doesn't have any of the mission fit, which we were never party to that. It was always Northrop Grumman's responsibility. And the other thing that we needed to do to make it a civilian aircraft is that it no longer has the remote piloting feature."
The architecture is still there, but the fiber between the uplink and the autopilot is not, Barton said. "It's purely direct control."
If a NATO customer becomes interested, the company can reinstate a remote piloting capability. Non-NATO countries cannot have the feature, Barton said, but for those countries the company is offering a piloted aircraft.
Originally, the plan was for the Army to be able to pilot the aircraft from its home base at Fort McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to Gibraltar, to Cypress, then on to Kandahar in Afghanistan where it would operate out of the airport there performing unmanned missions where it would stay aloft for nearly a month.
For the next couple of years at least, the airship will always have pilots, Barton said.
Hybrid Air Vehicles was able to resurrect LEMV with what Barton calls a lot of dedication from a supportive team, some government support and it even turned to crowdfunding.
"We looked with some trepidation, I have to say much management debate," Barton said. But due to a change in British law the company was eligible to raise up to £4 million (US $5.8 million) a year from crowdfunding.
Last June, the company used the Crowd Cube platform and raised £2.8 million, and last month it reached the full £4 million cap, Barton said. The company has the option to restart the process in June to try to raise another £4 million over the course of next year.
Hybrid Air Vehicles also received a £3 million award through a government competition in the UK called the Low Carbon Aircraft Technology Exportation (LOCATE) program to work on lower fuel consumption solutions. Airlander "is very much" a low-fuel consumption aircraft, Barton said.
In the European forum, the company won a €2.5 million award through a competition called the Airlander Civil Exploitation Project (ACEP), which is to help develop the regulations to fly an airship under civilian rules. The company will help determine what regulations should exist and the award helps the company conduct the ground and flight testing for the aircraft.
The company won another £3 million grant from the British government to create jobs, Barton said. Cardington is a mid- to low-employment location, so it is possible to grow jobs there, he said.
As the company moves toward the first flight since LEMV, it is more confident. "We learned a lot from the first flight, we have 90 minutes of data" from every sensor and gauge, Barton said. And tThe company has made adjustments, and by using computer simulations, it believes it has solved most of the issues that came up during the first flight by using computer simulations. Of course, it will be hard to tell if everything is resolved until the airship flies, he added, noting it’s unlikely that the ship will fly flawlessly the first time in the air.
Hybrid Air Vehicles sees much potential for the aircraft, from special operations intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to an airborne communications hub to cargo resupply.
The aircraft can fly for about 3 weeks carrying 3,000 lbs. That is 60 times the capability of the Army's Gray Eagle, the longest enduring unmanned aircraft system in that inventory, Barton said.
According to Simon Evans, the company’s head of business development for defense and security, there is major potential for navies and coast guards. He noted the company is talking to a non-US coast guard about potential capability now to address issues like refugees and fishery surveillance.
And for the navies, Evans sees possible usefulness for the airship when it comes to resupplying vessels at sea. The airship is capable of staying aloft above a ship and would not require landing.
"One of the things we are keen on is we are the [original equipment manufacturer] and design authority but in order to get into a customer community we will be working closely in partnership with mission system providers and customers to deliver full capability to meet their requirements," Evans said. "We are a green aircraft with an empty payload at the moment, which can be shaped to meet the customer's needs."