The blimp broke away from its mooring near Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and came down in Pennsylvania, but not before its heavy tethering cables dragged on the ground for 20 miles, bringing down power lines and cutting electricity.I'm operating in my usual day-late-and-a-dollar-short mode. I'm sure you've all heard about this by now, but here's some background that you may have missed.
The U.S. military has two giant, unmanned surveillance blimps it uses to watch the East Coast from a base in Maryland. And one of them escaped its tethers Wednesday and floated aimlessly over Pennsylvania, downing power lines and cutting off electricity for tens of thousands of residents.
The incident started shortly after noon, when the blimp became detached from its anchor, NORAD said. Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to ensure it didn’t collide with other aircraft. By late afternoon, the dirigible had come down to the ground near Moreland Township in Pennsylvania — after drifting more than 100 miles — but not before leaving a trail of damage in its wake.
...the blimp’s heavy tether dragged for 20 miles across his county. There were no injuries within county borders, but the damage caused 35,000 to lose electricity, he said. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania canceled classes as a result; 911 phone lines were overwhelmed.
“It was a lot of chaos, initially,” Hunsinger said. “It pulled down power lines and utility poles.”
The largest known mammal is the blue whale, which typically grows to 110 feet long. A JLENS aerostat is 243 feet long. Raytheon says it has to be that huge to support its powerful radar system, which is designed to monitor an area the size of Texas.IMO it is also analogous to most other government programs. It takes a simple concept - a blimp - and transforms into something unnecessarily complex.
The blimp isn't JLENS — JLENS is two blimps. One blimp carries surveillance radar, and the other carries a separate targeting radar in case something needs to be shot down. The actual shooting would be done by any of several other weapons systems that JLENS can integrate with.
You can't just stick a pin in a JLENS blimp and pop it. At optimal altitude of 10,000 feet, the internal pressure of the helium is about the same as that of the outside atmosphere — so even if you were to puncture it with thousands of holes, the helium would leak out slowly.
The mile-long tether that's supposed to anchor the blimps to the ground is made of 1-inch-plus-thick super-strong Kevlar.
It's supposed to be strong enough to withstand 100-mph winds, Raytheon says. But winds at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, where the system is based, were in the single digits Wednesday, leaving the blimp's escape a mystery for now.
The tether does more than just anchor the blimp. It's stuffed with electric cables powering the radar systems and with fiber-optic wires ferrying data to and from computers on the ground.
The contraption — one of two tethered airships that make up the inconveniently named Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS — isn't really a blimp, according to its manufacturer, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Waltham, Massachusetts.Its effectiveness is open to debate.
It's an "aerostat" filled with helium...
The Defense Department's own testers have raised doubts about JLENS. A 2013 assessment by the Office of Operational Test and Evaluation (PDF), the most recent available, found that "system-level reliability is not meeting program growth goals" and that "the system does not meet the requirements for Operational Availability, Mean Time to Repair, or Mean Time Between System Abort."It's controversial.
"Both software and hardware reliability problems contribute to low system reliability and availability," according to the assessment.
Outside critics have also opposed it on privacy grounds.Its implementation leads to unintended - and unpleasant - consequences. Just ask the 35,000+ people without power.
In January 2013, Raytheon said it successfully tested a potential system to "observe surface moving targets" — that is, people on the ground, like a terrorist planting an improvised explosive device — in real time.
Amid objections from privacy advocates, the Army last year promised that it wouldn't put cameras on JLENS systems.
But the documents in which the Army made that promise were so heavily redacted that groups like the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, say there was no guarantee it wouldn't add cameras in the future.
Of course, that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the 300,000,000+ people who have lost power to other government programs and agencies.
At least the blimp is being put out of its misery.
Defense officials report that National Guard forces are preparing to fire bullets into an unmanned Army surveillance blimp that crashed in Pennsylvania to speed its deflation.
Now if we could just do that to other government programs...