Aerostat System

Aerostat System: An Overview of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Used for Surveillance


Introduction to Aerostats
Aerostats, commonly known as blimps, are non-rigid airships without an internal structural framework or keel. Unlike balloons, aerostats can be navigated and powered to an extent by propellers and motors. With their high endurance and ability to carry payloads, aerostats have emerged as a viable platform for unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

Aerostat Design and Components

Aerostats are composed of an inflatable hull or envelope filled with lighter-than-air lifting gas to provide buoyancy. The most common lifting gases used are helium or hydrogen due to their low density. The aerostat hull is made from durable, airtight materials such as polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or polyurethane-coated fabric. A payload gondola for sensors and communications equipment is suspended below the aerostat. Flight control systems including propulsion units, navigation aids, and ballast are housed in the gondola. Aerostats are typically unpiloted and tethered to the ground by a fiber rope or cable to provide power, data links, and station-keeping capability. Tether lengths can range from a few hundred feet to over 20,000 feet.

Application of Aerostats for Surveillance

The high altitudes affordable by Aerostats System make them well-suited for border monitoring and security missions. Their long endurance of over three weeks allows continuous aerial surveillance for extended periods. With various daylight, infrared and full motion video cameras, aerostats can detect illegal border incursions and movements over wide areas. They provide security forces persistent wide-area situational awareness to assist monitoring duties.

Aerostats have also seen use in fleet security operations to safeguard ports and harbors. With their radars and cameras, deviations from normal traffic patterns and potential threats from small boats and aircraft can be detected early. Mine countermeasure operations at sea also leverage aerostat capabilities to spot threats from above.

For force protection at military bases, tall aerostat systems are utilized to maintain vigilant surveillance over facilities and perimeter fences. Any unauthorized entry or adversary activity approaching the base area can then be swiftly spotted and addressed. Their sensitivity also allows aerostats to assist with security at critical infrastructure and public venues hosting large events and gatherings.

Operational Attributes of Aerostat Systems

Due to using helium which is naturally buoyant, aerostats are able to loiter for extended durations compared to other ISR platforms. As they are non-rigid, their deployment process is faster as it does not require folding wings or rotor assemblies. With ground handling crews, aerostats can typically be launched or retrieved within 30 minutes.

Aerostats provide a persistent eye in the sky at a very low operating cost. Having no onboard crew also means safety risks are negligible compared to manned aircraft or helicopters executing similar missions. Total operating expenses work out to only a few hundred dollars per flight hour versus many thousands for other assets.

Their stable and quiet flight enables high resolution sensor payloads to be carried aloft. Up to 1500 lbs of sensors including multiple optical and IR cameras, electronic support measures, radars or signals intelligence systems are standard aerostat package. From their vantage point hundreds or thousands of feet up, these sensors yield surveillance ranges of over 30 miles.

Aerostat stabilization and navigation systems allow them to operate in moderate winds with gusts up to 30 knots. Crosswinds and wind variations at altitude pose minimal disturbance to their steady hovering. Adverse weather conditions like rain, snow or fog also rarely impact aerostat operations. Even in such poor visibilities, they continue to provide dependable monitoring with infrared visibility. Modern digital avionics onboard ensure reliable communications and autonomous flight functions in all conditions.

Challenges Faced by Aerostat Systems

The need for a tether to remain powered and airborne poses some mission limitations for aerostats. It restricts their ability to reposition nimbly to changing areas of interest like a free-flying drone. However, multiple aerostats networked together relieve this concern to a large extent.

Sudden high-wind events can also become hazardous if storm gusts exceed operational tolerance levels. While weather seldom halts aerostat missions outright, very strong winds mandate removal from station temporarily for safety. Static electricity buildup from friction with the tether has also caused issues to onboard components in rare cases. Proper static discharge masts now alleviate this problem.

Hostile fire against aerostats from small arms or destructive devices is an ongoing tactical threat faced in conflict zones or high risk environments. Bulletproofing hulls and critical systems have enhanced survivability in such scenarios to allow continued operation after minor hits. But large scale attacks can potentially bring the aerostat platform down.

Aerostats leverage their natural buoyancy through lighter-than-air gases to provide a persistent and cost-effective choice for aerial surveillance missions. Their stable operating capabilities combined with large payloads offer critical intelligence advantages over wide areas. Though somewhat restricted by their tethers, modern advancements are constantly addressing aerostat challenges to optimize their contributions to security, border control and force protection tasks worldwide. Their role as a stalwart ISR asset in support of military and civilian operations looks poised to grow in the foreseeable future.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it