Last summer, the U.S. military awarded Northrop Grumman a $517-million contract for a Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV). The 300-foot-long aircraft gets about 40 percent of its lift from its hull's aerodynamic shape. It can stay aloft for three weeks at a time running surveillance. Northrop says the LEMV will be ready for action by the beginning of next year.
The pressure within the LEMV's helium envelope is low enough that if it is somehow shot or punctured, the ship will neither explode nor tumble from the sky.
The military plans to deploy the LEMV without anyone on board. Autonomous sky trains, made up of a series of ships tied together, are a possibility (although current flight regulations require a pilot to steer ships through commercial airspace).
The ship's four diesel engines cost $15,000 to fuel on a three-week mission—one tenth the consumption of a helicopter and one quarter that of an airplane used on similar missions.
[Image courtesy Northrop Grumman