Some of what you are about to read may have been covered in other obscure stories and videos sprinkled across the net. In this multi-part instance, they are being brought together with first hand commentary and analysis. Reporting from my experience as part of a successful deployment of LTA (Lighter Than Air) platforms for the purpose of ISR force protection. My sincerest intention with this piece is to provide some insight and background into what is involved in a successful program, without giving away information that could limit the effectiveness of those deployed system(s).
Overview and Ramp up…
The Persistent Surveillance concept is pretty straightforward in both its nature and application. There is no denying the inherent value in having a constant unobstructed 360-degree view of your site, property and infrastructure. From a security standpoint, it is a concept that, if offered, sells itself. However, only a few technologies can afford you that capability. And this is where the science of application comes into play in employing the right tool for the job.
Sure you could meet some of those goals with cameras on towers of varying heights. However, in that scenario, you would still be faced with limitations in your line of sight, haze, and in warm climates, scintillation. You could also achieve a number of those goals with a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System.). Again, limitations would have to be overcome as there are trade offs in the varying size of systems, quality of the sensors, time to get on station, how long you can have it, and finally, at what price? So, we have deduced that the later two examples serve well as supporting solutions, but fall short of being the best solution. In simpler terms, like driving nails with a pipe wrench.
FOB commanders in Afghanistan were looking for ways to counter some of the shenanigans associated with asymmetric warfare. NAVAIR was asked if they could craft a solution, and the lean mean engineering machine 4.5X, known for quickly responding to immediate needs, set to work on finding ways to mitigate those difficulties. The fix envisioned in this case was to employ a tethered Lighter Than Air (LTA) system.
Aerostat technology and platforms are not necessarily new, as tethered balloons have been employed in one form or another as far back as the Civil War. More recently, several aerostat systems had been fielded in Iraq. However, NAVAIR found itself in sort of a goldilocks parable as the variables in this instance -terrain, insurgency and the specific theater limitations of Afghanistan -called for a custom host platform and intelligence gathering configuration.
There was the larger PTDS
At the other end of the spectrum was a 17-meter system. The former should not be totally discounted, but it definitely lacked the desired mobility and widespread practicality for a country with little in the way of logistical infrastructure. The later being too small to operate at required theater altitudes as well as being hamstrung by limited system capabilities.
So, 4.5X immediately set out to develop a system that was practical and designed to overlay the complex operational environment. The design team went above and beyond preloaded additional components and software, thus indemnifying against unforeseen operational needs. They were also able to meet these needs at a price point that allowed for a wider proliferation of benefits, a true testament to NAVAIR 4.5X’s development and rapid fielding prowess.
Early on and during the initial demonstrations, it was realized that they had hit the mark and the order numbers started to grow exponentially. The project was shaping up to be huge, especially for a group of engineers more used to designing and operating small projects. But after successfully fielding 31 systems in a year, all doubts were assuaged about who was up to the challenge of fielding and maintaining the entire package.
One of the earlier higher level demos…
END OF PART ONE