November 23, 2007
Last updated: 10:43 PM
By Jon W. Glass, The Virginian-Pilot
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C.
Earlier this month, its efforts finally got off the ground.
Officials with Blackwater Airships, a business unit of the Moyock-based tactical training and security company, say they successfully field-tested a 170-foot prototype on the grounds of a former Navy air station here.
Called the Polar 400, the non rigid blimp is designed to be unmanned and remotely controlled from a ground station. It would carry aloft such payloads as intelligence-gathering cameras, radar, communications gear and infrared sensors.
During this month's testing, a company airship pilot operated the vehicle from inside a metal-framed payload cabin attached to the airship's underside.
By Monday, the blimp had logged three flights, ranging from 30 to 90 minutes each.
"It's very responsive. It's the most maneuverable blimp I've ever flown," said Blackwater test pilot Doug McFadden, who said he has worked for airship operators Lightship Group and Airship Management Services.
Alan Ram, head of production and business development for Blackwater Airships, was more emphatic: "We were literally blown away."
Distracted recently by attention focused on a Sept. 16 shooting incident involving the company's security guards in Iraq, Blackwater views the airship as a way to diversify its business products. The company also has begun production of an armored personnel vehicle, known as the Grizzly, in a Camden County facility.
The company sees potential to expand business with both. "Blackwater is in places in the world where they see firsthand the things that are lacking and that might be beneficial," said Anne Tyrrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman.
With a few engineering innovations, Blackwater hopes to turn a time-tested platform - the Navy used blimps to watch for enemy submarines in World War II - into a modern tool for combatting terrorism and for other 21st-century needs.
Hoping to wedge its way into a highly competitive market, the company is touting its airship as a lower-cost, longer-operating alternative to the fixed and rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles now widely used by the Air Force and other military services.
"We think it's a niche product with a lot of markets," Ram said.
The Coast Guard and federal Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, could use the airships to catch drug smugglers and monitor shipping channels. The Department of Homeland Security could fly them to thwart illegal border crossings, Ram said.
The military, he added, could employ them for an array of missions, including sentry duty for military bases and to provide surveillance for improvised explosive devices along convoy routes.
Blackwater plans to begin production of its blimps by the middle of next year. The airships and their components will be assembled at two facilities in Elizabeth City.
One is a massive, blue-and-gray hangar built in the early 1940s that once housed the Weeksville Naval Air Station, a Navy blimp base. The stadium-sized building sits in the middle of a large, open field off Blimp View Drive. Blackwater conducts its field tests there and shares space with the building's owner, TCOM LP, an airship developer that is making the air bags for the Polar 400.
On Monday, a Blackwater Airships crew was in the field with a small-scale airship used to test motors and other equipment for the Polar 400. As the model roared off, the engine growled like the fuzz-toned guitar at the beginning of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man."
Blackwater is making its move as the federal government has dramatically ramped up funding to develop and procure unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
From 2000 to 2005, defense spending for UAVs increased to .1 billion from 4 million, according to the Congressional Research Service. The trend is expected to continue.
The increasing dollars have drawn plenty of companies to the market, including defense and aerospace giants Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Lockheed Martin and SAIC both are working on unmanned airship projects.
"Blackwater is attempting to enter a crowded market, and it would seem to me that they're going to have to have a pretty good story to tell - and maybe they do," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria-based group that monitors military and homeland security issues.
"Companies like Blackwater are not going to have Iraq forever," Pike said. "They would have to be looking around to figure out other brand extensions they can develop that are relevant to their existing customer base."
The helium-filled Polar 400 is designed to operate at an altitude of around 10,000 feet and at top speeds of around 60 mph. Ram said the airship's purchase price should be around 50 percent less than the million to million that a typical fixed-wing UAV sells for.
The airship's operating costs also will be a fraction of that for a fixed-wing UAV, he said, because unlike rigid UAVs, the lighter-than-air blimp doesn't need to burn fuel to fly. Its V-8 diesel engine is used only to keep the airship on position, Ram said.
A key selling point is an innovative hydraulic propulsion system that company engineers developed. It has allowed lightweight hydraulic propeller motors to be mounted on the port, starboard and stern sections of the Polar 400, including a lateral thrust propeller that makes handling the craft easier at low speeds. That has eliminated the need for a large ground crew to help land it, Ram said.
"To my knowledge, no one has mounted an engine on a non rigid surface, and no one has used hydraulic propulsion to do it," he said. "That is really revolutionary in the airship industry."
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