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IT Confidential: A Government Eye High, Very High, In The Sky

Is it bad or good that Lockheed Martin's High Altitude Airship project is behind schedule?
Akron, Ohio, is a little town about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland. Akron is most famous for one thing: tires. During the middle years of the 20th century, Akron's factories pumped out a large percentage of the world's rubber tires. Today, Akron is a struggling Midwest rust belt community.

Akron is famous for something else: blimps. A Goodyear blimp is a familiar sight floating above sporting events. One of the city's landmarks is a giant hangar, 1,175 feet long and 211 feet (22 stories) high, that the Goodyear company built in 1929 to house its fleet of blimps.

A few weeks ago, that hangar, known as the Akron Airdock, caught on fire. It was a superficial fire, quickly brought under control. Turns out, the hangar isn't home to Goodyear's blimp fleet anymore. Lockheed Martin, which leases the hangar, is renovating it to house something else: a massive lighter-than-air craft, 500 feet long and 160 feet in diameter, which Lockheed Martin is developing under contract to the federal government. That project is called the High Altitude Airship, and it's a piece of the Pentagon's domestic-defense strategy.

Or it's a tool in the government's increasingly aggressive domestic-surveillance policy--take your pick. "Big Brother's New Toy" said a headline in a local newspaper, the Cleveland Free Times. Except that the High Altitude Airship project isn't new. And at the rate it's being funded and developed, the federal government won't be watching football games from on high, much less terrorist invasions or its citizens' activities, any time soon.

The project goes back to the late 1990s, when Lockheed Martin and several other companies sketched out proposals for high-altitude (70,000 feet), long-term (one year plus) stationary blimps, powered by solar panels, that could be used for defense, surveillance, environmental, or telecommunications purposes. In 2003 Lockheed Martin won a $40 million contract from the Missile Defense Agency to begin design work on a prototype High Altitude Airship, to be ready to fly in 2006.

"That was our goal at the time," says Ron Browning, director of business development for Lockheed Martin's MS2 defense and surveillance systems. What intervened? "The funding profile," he says. Last September, the company was finally awarded another $149.5 million to begin work on the prototype. There's also been funding from the city of Akron, Summit County, and the state of Ohio, as well as Lockheed Martin's own investment in the project. Browning estimates investment in the project is now more than $200 million.

Actual construction of the prototype should begin next year, and it should be ready to fly in 2009 or 2010. "Everybody's working toward that goal," Browning says. "A couple of years past the prototype [we'll] have an operational flying vehicle."

At least, that's the current plan. However, Browning is pragmatic about working with the Pentagon. "This isn't their only project. We have to participate in their overall architecture of tasking," he says. "Not every program, not every agency, gets every funding it would like to have."

Which may be good news for privacy paranoids--or terrorist invaders. Take your pick.

Good news for me would be an industry tip. Send it to [email protected] or phone 516-562-5326.

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