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US Army doubles fleet of enormous floating eyes

'Beholder'-esque aerostat blimps spy Afghanistan

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The US Army is doubling its fleet of moored spy balloons, deployed in overseas warzones to provide continuous unblinking overwatch around fortified American camps and bases.

The 74K Aerostat, as used in the PTDS System. Credit: Lockheed

Giant, floating, all-seeing eyes in the sky r us

Arms behemoth Lockheed Martin announced yesterday that it has been awarded a $133m contract to provide a further 8 Persistent Threat Detection Systems (PTDS) tethered aerostats, supplementing the 9 already in service overseas.

The PTDS is based on Lockheed's 74K (74,000 cubic foot) helium aerostat design, produced at the stupendous Airdock in Akron, Ohio - where the mighty flying aircraft carriers of the pre-war US Navy were built by Goodyear-Zeppelin in the 1930s, although nowadays it is owned by Lockheed. It's understood that the PTDS aerostats carry a ground-sweeping radar and accompanying thermal-camera systems, able to pick out moving objects across a wide stretch of terrain and then zoom in to identify them.

Such motion-detector/spyeye systems are also routinely deployed in other ways: manned or unmanned aircraft, or atop a fixed tower. Aerostats offer more height and thus more sweep area than is feasible with a tower - the 74K operates 1,500m up - and are able to stay up much longer and more cheaply than aircraft. They are invaluable for maintaining a watch over the area around a base, for instance, making it much harder for insurgents to mount rocket or mortar attacks or plant bombs in the vicinity.

The price of $16m apiece might seem a little high for a moored balloon, but this includes the sensors, ground station, supporting vehicles and generators etc.

The only thing lacking would seem to be a proper name: PTDS is frankly a bit dull. Given that we're talking about a huge, vaguely globular thing floating in midair with a variety of eyes on it, it seems hard not to suggest "Beholder" as an alternative. ®

Bootnote

For those unfamiliar with the Dungeons & Dragons monster portfolio, there's some explanation of Beholders here.

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