Sunday, 7 October 2012

Sees Everything All The Time

The U.S. Army has ordered another 44 of its new Starlite radara. The AN/ZPY-1 Starlite lightweight radar weighs 29.5 kg (65 pounds), occupies 34 cc (1.2 cubic feet), uses 750 watts of power and costs about $2.3 million each. Starlite can deliver photo quality black and white images of what is down there, in any weather. The army has developed software that enables the Starlite images to be transmitted to existing army video terminals, and automatically appear on electronic versions of standard army maps. Starlite is used in combination with vidcams and heat sensors (infrared or thermal). The Starlite software enables the operator to quickly, or automatically, point a video camera at anything the Starlite can see. The army now has 77 Starlites in service or on order.

The Starlite was originally designed for use in the army's new 1.5 ton MQ-1C Sky Warrior UAV. While UAVs get more publicity, the army has found that its aerostats (stationary blimps) and tall towers also make good use of Starlite and do it a lot cheaper (under $1,000 an hour, mostly for maintenance, repairs and personnel to monitor the sensors) and stay airborne nearly all the time. Compare this to Sky Warrior or Predator, which costs $6,000 an hour to fly. The stationary Starlites just need a way to keep an eye on a large area (like a chunk of the Syrian, Iranian or Pakistani border, or the area surrounding a base) 24/7.

Starlite thus became another component of the PTDS (Persistent Threat Detection Systems) that are mounted in the aerostats or towers. PTDS was developed because of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was only eight years ago that the U.S. Army sent 22 blimps (aerostats, actually) to Iraq and Afghanistan. The most common model of aerostats float at about 330 meters (a thousand feet), tethered by a cable that provides power and communications to the day and night cameras, or Starlite radar, up there. The big problem was ground fire from rifles and machine-guns. Hostile gunmen liked using the aerostats as targets. Rifle fire would not destroy the aerostats, but did cause them to be brought down more frequently for repairs. Normally, the aerostats can stay up for 30 days at a time, but the bullet damage repairs have some of them coming down every few days. The PTDS surveillance systems mounted on tall steel towers also suffer gunfire damage, but rarely any that disables the equipment.

The first army aerostats went to Iraq to help defend offshore oil facilities from attack by terrorist speedboats. Those early systems used a 75 meter (233 foot) long, helium filled, unmanned aerostat equipped with radar and other sensors. These aerostats were about 2.5 times the size of the more familiar advertising blimp. Aerostats are blimp like vehicles designed to always turn into the wind and stay in the same place. These larger aerostats were originally designed to detect cruise missiles, and were soon replaced by smaller and cheaper aerostat systems currently in use.

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