News | Jul 27, 2017

This lightweight blimp provides unblinking surveillance, saves Air Force money

Small business leverages Air Force SBIR funding to enhance military capabilities

News Article Image of This lightweight blimp provides unblinking surveillance, saves Air Force money

The Lightweight Aerostat System goes through desert testing at Sandia National Laboratories. Photo courtesy Carolina Unmanned Vehicles.

It’s called the Lightweight Aerostat System, and it’s the coolest thing that could be called a helium balloon.

The blimp-kite hybrid was designed by a public-private partnership, and has flown at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida where it extends the range of land-based test sensors, a substantial cost savings over using conventional aircraft to convey flight test data from experimental aircraft and munitions operating over the base’s oceanic test area.

“The LAS we developed under the Air Force (Small Business Innovation Research program) has been the foundation of our business,” said Mike Rogers, Carolina Unmanned Vehicles engineer and project manager.

Unlike traditional blimps or balloons, which rely solely on helium to get and stay aloft, the semi-rigid LAS has a kite-like keel to harness the winds, significantly increasing both stability and payload capacity up to 26.5 pounds.

And the LAS can launch in 30-mile-per-hour winds and operate in 50-mile-per-hour winds, because its lifting surfaces support the system in conditions that force less aerodynamic blimps to the ground.

And as drones gain wider use, the LAS competes with lower operating and maintenance costs. No complicated flight clearances are needed, and the system can be operated by two trained technicians who field the system from a truck trailer.

And while traditional drones are landing to refuel, the LAS provides 24-hour-a-day coverage for weeks on end without maintenance or downtime, which helps protect troops on the battlefield.

The Army Rapid Equipping Force contracted with Carolina Unmanned Vehicles to build a special version of the LAS called the Small Tactical Multi-Payload Aerostat System to support intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for small tactical units and forward operating bases.

Seven of their systems deployed to Afghanistan, where they provided surveillance, including the detection of anti-coalition forces installing roadside bombs.

Surveillance payloads flown at 500 to 1,000 feet can monitor a radius of 14 miles, and communication payloads lofted to 4,000 feet provide coverage out to 50 miles or more, enhancing warfighter capabilities without using scarce satellite bandwidth.

“When I’m talking with other companies in North Carolina I encourage them to look into the SBIR program, Rogers said.

“It’s highly competitive, but it provides seed money to get some real work done. The Air Force SBIR was critical to our success—it gave us the wherewithal to turn our ideas and drawings into a working system.”

Troy Carter can be contacted at or 406-994-7798.

Headshot Image of Ray Friesenhahn, CLP

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