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Blimp Maker Builds Flying Digital Movie Screen

The picture streams from a laptop PC in the airship to the screen mounted on the outside of the blimp.
A small Orlando, Fla., company that builds blimps has developed and shipped the first movie screen for the sky.

The A-170 Video Lightsign from The Lightship Group took two and a half years to develop, from concept to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which received approval in April. An unidentified company already agreed to pay $5 million to lease the flying digital sign for one year.

The craft, which shipped in pieces, arrived in Australia this past weekend. The company that leased the airship will take possession in August. Production will begin on the next A-170 in 60 days. It's been leased to an American company, according to Mickey Wittman, Lightship Group director of client services, who worked with Goodyear's blimp division for many years.

Advancements both in balloon and light emitting diodes technology made the project possible. Today's LEDs produce more and better quality light, and weigh and cost less, analysts say. The part of the airship that fills with helium is more durable, too.

The blimp, or "Video Lightsign," measures 170 feet long, 55-feet high and 46-feet wide. The picture streams from a laptop PC in the airship to the screen mounted on the outside. A Flir Ultramedia Series Aerial Camera mounted on the A-170 can take ground pictures of people and places, and display them on the 70-by-30-foot LED screen as it travels 15 mph approximately 1,000 feet above.

JupiterResearch advertising analyst Emily Riley said consumer-generated online media has made the general public the super star and people are getting use to being part of the advertisement.

The A-170 also can run NFL football or World Cup soccer highlights, movies and advertisements. "It can change messages by ZIP Code because it has a global positioning system built in," Wittman said.

Directing consumer content to a specific geographic location through GPS technology as the blimp flies high above a local market appeals to Barry Vandevier, chief technology officer at Travelocity, which provides online travel services. "That's a big enhancement over current advertising technologies available in blimps," he said. "Imagine if it had access to online content from live feeds. You could send pricing data and other promotional information directed to consumers in that location."

More companies building large outdoor electronic signs chose to use LEDs because they can display the picture into nearly any configuration. That's not possible with older outdoor signage technology, such as incandescent, which isn't as bright. The airship's screen has about 34,000 LEDs, Wittman said. When mounted close together, LEDs can produce a high-resolution picture quality, according to Sanju Khatri, principal analyst of projection and large screen displays at research firm iSuppli Corp. "It appears HighTech Electronic Display is the manufacturer for the LEDs, and apparently they use a display that has between 70 and 80 millimeter pixel pitch, which is bright enough for daylight," she explained. Lightship's LED screen can only run one color, red, during the day, but offers a full spectrum of color at night. Other features in the works include a Wi-Fi connection, Wittman said.

The Lightship Group, an American Blimp Corp. company, was founded in 1995 as a partnership between Virgin Lightships and Lightship America, operating offices in Orlando, Fla, and Telford, United Kingdom.