Massive Blimps Could Soon Conduct 360-Degree Surveillance Over D.C. Area

Two massive blimps -- each the length of a football field -- will soon begin a new testing phase in Aberdeen, Md.

Thursday, Jul 25, 2013  |  Updated 7:59 PM EDT
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News4's Mark Segraves shows us the new blimp that will be hovering over the Washington area, providing critical early warning about aircraft, drones and cruise or short-range missiles within a 320 mile radius.

Mark Segraves

News4's Mark Segraves shows us the new blimp that will be hovering over the Washington area, providing critical early warning about aircraft, drones and cruise or short-range missiles within a 320 mile radius.

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The D.C. skyline could soon look like something out of a science-fiction movie. Two massive military blimps -- each the length of a football field -- are set to begin a new testing phase in Maryland.

The program, known as JLENS (the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System) is a system of two tethered airships that can float up to 10,000 feet in the air. One carries a 360-degree radar system; the other a fire control system for missile interception.

Fresh off a six-week "test drive" in Utah, the blimps will now move to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, according to a Thursday release from Raytheon, the defense contractor that built them.

The U.S. Army will then begin a long-term trial watching over the D.C. area.

The blimps, which can detect drones or cruise missiles from miles away, are designed to defeat cruise missiles, track swarming boat attacks and provide 360-degree surveillance of a radius of more than 300 miles of territory.  They can remain in the air for up to 30 days at a time, each tethered to a mobile base.

It's also a cost-saving measure, Raytheon said, because the blimps require less fuel and manpower. A fixed-wing aircraft can cost 500-700 percent more than one of the JLENS blimps, and can cover as much territory as 4-5 other aircraft.

The designer of JLENS touts its ability to track patterns of life over time, but Raytheon Project Manager Doug Burgess assured that while the blimps can track ground movement, they can't read license plate numbers or look at any one person, News4's Mark Segraves reported.

The blimps, which are expected to start hovering over Aberdeen before next spring, will be visible from Interstate 95.

The blimps will stay in the skies for up to three years. Then the Department of Defense will decide whether they stay.

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