The Air Force uses a variety of different platforms to conduct surveillance over Afghanistan. Putting lots of data sources together to make sense of what's really going on is tricky, so they're spending $211 million on a crash program to launch a "freakishly large" blimp to coordinate it all.
When sources at the Air Force take the time to call their own project "freakish," you know they're not messing around. The Blue Devil program intends to construct a giant blimp, which at 350 feet long, will be about seven times larger than the Goodyear Blimp, making it one of the largest airships constructed since World War II. It's supposed to be able to stay aloft for up to a week at 20,000 feet, which is way, way, WAY higher than most blimps usually go.
The blimp will be stuffed with all kinds of fancy hardware, including a dozen different sensor systems that can be swapped out in mid-air using an automated onboard railroad. The highlight of the sensors is a wide-area airborne surveillance system that uses a dozen cameras all working together to cover two mile wide swathes of ground all at once; the next generation of this same system promises to bring 96 (!) cameras to the party. And to do all of the image analysis, the blimp will also be packing an honest-to-God 2,000 core supercomputer.
The overall concept for the program is to create one central hub for regional surveillance that soldiers on the ground can query for information. The surveillance and analysis systems on the blimp will figure out what's important and what's not, and provide soldiers with the information they need when they need it. Or that's the idea, anyway, but we'll see just what exactly makes it off the ground when the blimp has its first scheduled flight on October 15th of this year.