Earlier this year, bad weather delayed a US Air Force in test of its Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle (NSMV), a new technology for providing space satellite type reconnaissance and communications without using a satellite.. The semi-autonomous, lighter-than-air unmanned aircraft would operate in the top layers of the atmosphere for extended periods. In a missile-defense configuration, a UAV airship might carry ladar (laser radar) for detecting and tracking ballistic missile launches, or conventional radar to keep on top of cruise missiles or aircraft.
Operating in "near space" altitudes between 32 and 41 kilometers the NSMV would be higher than aircraft fly, but below where low Earth orbit satellites travel. From this height, each NSMV UAV would be in a favorable position from which to monitor and provide data regarding surface-to-surface and surface-to-air activities across a wide sweep of the Earth's area. In theory, the NSMV will be a relatively low-cost supplement to manned and unmanned aircraft.
The Air Force will be testing a 155-foot-long, V-shaped, helium-lift airship called Ascender. A smaller, 92-foot model has already been successfully tested inside its hangar. For flight testing of the Ascender, the Air Force plans to fly it to 30 kilometers, have it maneuver between two points using its autonomous GPS-based navigation system, loiter over the second point, and return to its base. While Ascender uses lightweight carbon-fiber propellers to generate thrust, it has, in addition, a unique system that transfers helium between its two chambers to provide additional maneuverability by shifting its center of gravity and adjusting trim.
The next time weather will allow testing will be in May, although no specific date has been yet been selected. While NSMV is not directly related to the High Altitude Airship Project, the two projects are complementary, and in addition, the Air Force is working with the other services to ensure that employment concepts, technical issues, and lessons learned are shared.
Powered by a combination of solar panels and fuel cells running its electrically driven propellers and surveillance gear, a fleet of 10-12 HAAs (plus backups) is envisioned. The number and stationing of the NSMV fleet has yet to be determined. If NSMV's spring flight is successful, Phase II to build a vehicle that will ascend to over 30 kilometers with a 100 pound payload will be started. Pending funding, this Phase II ship could fly in late 2004 or early 2005 K.B. Sherman