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Page last updated at 14:14 GMT, Monday, 26 July 2010 15:14 UK
Cardington Hangars home to US military airships
Cardington Hangars
The airships have been developed at Cardington Hangars in Beds

Airships developed at Cardington Hangars are being sent to Afghanistan.

Bedfordshire's Hybrid Air Vehicles and US defence giant Northrop Grumann have secured a multi million pound deal to build three state-of-the-art airships.

They will float, unmanned over the front line for three weeks at a time to give military commanders a continuous picture of the battlefield.

They are being dubbed the "unblinking eye" of the US Army in Afghanistan and are equipped with sensors and cameras.


The idea is to provide what the US military calls persistent, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Head of the airship programme at Northrop Grumann, Alan Metzger said:

"The US, like the rest of the world, has been looking for ways to carry out persistent surveillance in a cost-effective manner. The operating costs of a vehicle of this type are substantially less than we have experienced to date."

All the coalition forces now have unmanned aerial vehicles over Afghanistan, taking pictures and collecting information, but they all fly for hours whereas, the airship can stay up for three weeks and should get seamless analysis.

The airship is the length of a football pitch at 290 foot.

It is designed to stay airborne for 21 days using a frugal diesel engine, which will go through about £16,000 of fuel in that time.

Some 60% of its lift power comes from helium.

Hybrid Air Vehicles and Northrop have been given just 18 months to build and test the airships and the intelligence gathering system before handing them over to the US army.

Minor disagreement

Marketing Director of Hybrid Air Vehicles, Gordon Taylor explained how the project is progressing:

"It is running to schedule so far, with only a minor disagreement on the colour scheme, the army wanted the airship in military grey, but it has to be white to deflect the sun's rays."

"The fact that Taliban insurgents, not to mention the civilian population of Afghanistan, will be in no doubt that an enormous white object is floating overhead is not a problem.

"It's floating at 20,000 feet, that's four miles away so it will look very small. A bullet wouldn't damage it and if it were hit by a missile then it could still float for several days until it was recovered because the pressure inside is very low," he said.

The hull and propulsion system will be made in Cardington where airships have been built since the World War I, and then taken to the US to be inflated and kitted out with Northrop's surveillance equipment.

The hull is made from a mixture of laminate fabrics including kevlar, the material used in body armour.

Staff increase

The long-range heavy-lift airship, called SkyCat is now being marketed to oil and gas companies operating in difficult and environmentally sensitive locations such as the Arctic, where it is hard to deliver bulky pipelines and drilling equipment as there are no roads or runways for cargo planes.

The company is in talks with a second customer who is interested in the heavy-lift airship, but no contracts have yet been agreed.

With work on the US army airships taking off the Bedfordshire based company is now increasing its staff of 20 to 100 by the end of the year, hiring design engineers and project managers.

If the army project succeeds, the Cardington site could be home once again to a thriving airship industry.

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