This manned spherical airship has been tested by the navy as an eye in the sky

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Four months earlier, DCMilitary.com
reported Huett and airship designer Holkan Colting set a world altitude record by bringing the AeroSphere up to 20,453 feet. It was noted at the time that the prototype used in these tests was “severely underpowered” and was only operating at around 40% of its propulsion potential.

Another 2005 study written by USAF Major Andrew Knoedler for the Air University of the Air Force claims that the AeroSphere reached 20,000 feet during a test flight in 2003. Espace.com reported the same claim. However, a 2005 RAND Corporation study titled “High Altitude Airships for the Future Force Army” indicated that the AeroSphere would be tested at 65,000 feet. However, it is not known if further tests were carried out above 20,000 feet. According to a 2005 Air University study by USAF Lt. Col. Edward B. Tomme, the Navy at one point planned to build a 200-foot-diameter version that could reach “near space.” . CyberAerospace manufactured another model, the SA-260, which had a claimed operating altitude of 68,000 feet, well below anything that could be called “near space” but certainly at high altitude.

The SA-60 was the company’s 11th prototype. The Aerosphere was to have a range of 50 hours, be able to carry two crew members plus a payload of up to 500 pounds, and weigh only 4,500 pounds in total. Each AeroSphere cost around $ 5 million. The lift of the sphere came from a Mylar bag filled with helium housed inside the outer casing. At launch, the helium bag occupied only about six percent of the total volume inside the sphere. As the AeroSphere gained altitude, the interior helium sac expanded to occupy approximately 85% of the interior volume, and some of the air keeping the sphere pressurized and rigid was released to make room for expansion. According to a study by Rand Corporation, the outer shell of the AeroSphere was made of Spectra fiber, a composite material found in body armor and vehicle protection.

Unlike many other forms of airships that feature rigid internal structures or gangways, the interior of the SA-60 was essentially the interior of the balloon, with a small cockpit. An internal blower system maintained positive pressure inside the craft, almost like an inflatable bounce house. The cockpit featured a plexiglass windshield providing a “spectacular” view, described as “looking out of a 14ft porthole”.

Two 80-horsepower gasoline engines propelled a pair of 45-inch propellers on each side, which provided vector thrust as they spun on their mounts. Another motor and propeller were mounted at the rear of the sphere, but instead of providing propulsion, this propeller faced the craft itself. Airflow from this rear propeller would eliminate what’s called boundary layer separation, an aerodynamic effect that increases drag. The AeroSphere crew could refuel the engines on the fly by keeping five gallon gas cans inside the casing, or hull.

The SA-60 had a small footprint when deflated, able to fit on a flatbed truck. A crew of six could have the airship ready to fly in less than 24 hours.

The shape of the AeroSphere offered another significant advantage over oblong airships like airships. While a non-spherical airship must pay constant attention to wind speed and direction, the spherical shape of the SA-60 means that it presents the same shape to the wind regardless of which direction the wind is blowing. . This allows it to be anchored in fixed positions without having to turn around a morning mast to avoid being blown away by high winds.

The inventor of the craft Holkan Colting holds numerous patents relating to the components and design of the airship, including one for a spherical vessel like the SA-60. In its spherical airship patent, Colting claims that such a ship could offer unique capabilities that could make it well suited for electronic intelligence gathering (ELINT):

The present inventor has also noted other properties of a spherical airship which may tend to make it suitable for relatively long endurance use as a communications or surveillance platform. First, the envelope may tend to be transparent to electromagnetic waves in the frequency ranges of interest, i.e. the frequencies of electronic communications. This may tend to allow (a) remote control of the platform from a ground station, further reducing the weight in the air and both decreasing (i) the risk of human injury in the event of machine failure; and (ii) the need to land frequently for the comfort of the crew; (b) the use of the platform as a communication relay station for sending and receiving signals; and (c) the use of the station as a radar platform or as a listening station.

The organizational structure of the companies that developed the Aerosphere is puzzling to say the least. Many publications mention manufacturing as TechSphere, while others refer to it as Cyber ​​Aerospace. The SEC lists a file for Cyber ​​Aerospace from 2004. A SpaceDaily.com A 2004 report describes the sale of an AeroSphere, writing that “Proxity Digital Networks, through Cyber ​​Aerospace, an operating subsidiary of Proxity’s On Alert Systems, announces the purchase of the AeroSphere SA-76 of Techsphere Systems “. SEC filings for digital proximity networks ended in 2007.

The SA-60 however reappeared in 2009, this time under the ownership of another company, the Sierra Nevada Corporation. The company tested the AeroSphere at the Reno-Stead Airport in Nevada, gaining a lot of locals’ attention. A Reno news station reported at the time that “the giant white sphere generated quite a few calls” in its newsroom.

A spokesperson for the Sierra Nevada Corporation told the station at the time that the AeroSphere “could be used to monitor crowds or border crossings” or “be of use to anyone who wants a persistent surveillance presence in a location. distant”. It was reported that FAA regulations required the craft to be manned at the time, but “in the future it could be operated by remote control.” It is not known if further testing of the AeroSphere was performed after 2009.

Although it appears that the AeroSphere, which literally looks like an eyeball, fizzled out before being deployed like so many other ambitious aerospace projects, the lighter-than-air craft never went completely far. from the arsenal of the Ministry of Defense, such as high-tech balloons and aerostats are still widely used for surveillance and communication nodes around the world. In fact, LTA crafts seem to be having a resurgence lately. The unique abilities they offer still have their place on the battlefield, although more advanced platforms continue to proliferate. In 2020, it was revealed that the US military was looking to make high altitude unmanned balloons to launch ammunition and swarm drones that can serve as sensor platforms or decoys as a key tenet of its future. combat plans.

However, unlike the AeroSphere, these balloons today are almost entirely completely unmanned systems, as “hybrid” LTA vehicles can remain stationary for longer periods over a target area without the assistance of a target area. ‘crews. Earlier this year, we reported the appearance of high-tech balloons off the west coast that can stay stationary autonomously for up to 30 days, even against the wind, varying their altitude depending on the models. wind and temperature. A hybrid drone-airship LTA spacecraft, with a configuration similar to AeroSphere, could do this with much more precision and persistence, as well as maneuver to new areas whenever needed.

Smaller, unmanned designs could also take advantage of battery power and solar technologies to stay aloft for extreme durations. This mix of drone and airship is not a new concept, it has been explored and continues to be explored by several manufacturers, tech startups and research groups. Even swarms of small-scale airship drones have been tested.

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