In the future DARPA’s ISIS blimp may be hovering above the horizon near to conflict zones, feeding real time radar data to troops and smart weapons from on high. True to its name, it’s also a little more magical than the Goodyear blimp as it’s almost totally automated.
In fact, the Integrated Sensor Is the Structure has almost nothing in common with the Goodyear aircraft apart from its shape and helium-filling. It’s designed to take off from a permanent ground base in the U.S. and fly automatically to any point on Earth within 10 days, where it’ll hover in the stratosphere (over six miles up.) At this height it’s safe from most ground-based missile attacks and even pretty safe if an enemy aircraft tries to take it out with an air-to-air missile. It can beetle about at 60 knots to be repositioned for better surveillance opportunities, and even sprint away at 100 knots if a threat is imminent.
But what’s it actually for? Inside its core will be a huge phased array radar system, capable of tracking airborne and ground-based moving targets, and even producing Synthetic Aperture Radar images in great detail of whole battlefield scenes at high resolution (these images have the advantage over optical imagery in that you can take them at night and without needing to fly over the scene in question.) According to DARPA’s blurb on the beast it’ll provide “unsurpassed situational awareness with a surveillance range of 187 miles for individuals on the ground and 373 miles for advanced cruise missiles.”
If that doesn’t impress you, then this might: ISIS is designed to be pretty much automatic and self-sustaining. When its orbiting in the operational zone it harnesses solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which it then recombines in a fuel cell at night to generate electrical energy. Its rigid, light structure is even designed to absorb sunlight to help keep it aloft–all reducing fuel needs, and extending the usefulness of the thing. From a military point of view, it also means that all the local air base facilities, replacement aircraft, servicing, fuel and ground crews that go with current radar surveillance aircraft like AWACS won’t be needed. It’ll be in flight, as a demonstration prototype, sometime around 2014. Terminator-style, Skynet-driven apocalypse to follow…