Sky Snake

Flexible blimps are bending the rules on UAV design.

An artist's concept shows how the STS-111 segments each come with winglets made of carbon fiber rods with nylon material stretched over them to aid with lift, steering, and overall stability. (Sanswire-TAO Corp.)

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He claims that the cost of a Predator-class UAV is many times the cost of an airship of this kind. An STS-111 would run about $3 million to purchase, but only about $50 an hour to operate. “You crash a Predator, and that’s a tremendous cost, somewhere between $12 million and $18 million a pop,” says Erdberg. “Predators run around $2,000 an hour [to operate], and sometimes much more.”

The Stratellite, the company’s high-altitude vehicle, would find what Erdberg calls a “sweet spot” around 60,000 feet where it would experience the least amount of average wind. “Below and above that layer it’s very windy,” he says. “The idea,” he continues, “is to mix a balloon with an airship. Without fuel, it just becomes a balloon.”

Erdberg says that solar cell technology isn’t as far along as it needs to be. One of many problems for solar cells operating at very high altitudes is overheating from the sun’s powerful radiation. “We do believe that solar technology is the future,” says Erdberg. He claims that the company is doing research in that area. “But our gas technology is ready today.” In the second quarter of 2010, the company plans a public unveiling of their airships for two days at the Orlando Sanford International Airport.

“This is outside the box,” Erdberg says. “You’re taught something in school every day, but then this is something very different.”

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