It isn't a blimp but an airship, insist designers -- a 62-foot-tall "airship" that looks like a six-story beach ball.
The towering white sphere -- tied down to a field of wildflowers after its long flight in Southern Maryland -- flew as high as 10,000 feet during a recent three-hour flight demonstration at St. Mary's Airport.
The prototype is a miniature of the airship that will be manufactured by the Georgia-based Techsphere Systems International in the next 30 to 60 days, said Billy Robinson, chief executive of Proxity Digital Networks, as he walked inside the balloon.
The Navy has contracted with Proxity subsidiary Cyber Aerospace Corp. to begin testing the airship, which could eventually replace blimps -- the "cigar ships," as airship designer Hokan Colting called them -- and make them dinosaurs of low-altitude surveillance.
"It's more maneuverable than a traditional airship," said Colting, who lives in Canada. "Cigar ships can only go to 6,000 feet." The airship he designed has flown to 22,000 feet, a record for its kind.
The sphere airship can run continuously for 48 hours on three gasoline-powered engines or electric motors operating on power supplied by diesel generators, said Mike Meermans, the vice president for strategic planning at Sierra Nevada Corp., a defense electronics engineering and manufacturing enterprise based in Nevada. As the systems integrator for the airship, the company will install the flight controls system.
Most cigar ships need to be assembled before they can fly, but the airship is "field ready," its designer said.
"You can take it in the container and be flying in 24 hours," Colting said.
Even between flights it has advantages: It can be tied down by cords, while a traditional blimp must be tethered to a mast and even then bobs unsteadily.
Designers expect the airship to become valuable in military surveillance and offer a variety of uses, particularly when it operates unmanned. Robinson predicted the prototype will be ready for unmanned flights within the next 90 days of research.
Possible military uses for the airship include homeland security, enemy surveillance, border patrols, monitoring trade and mapping.
"At 6,500 feet, you could know what's coming into the U.S.," Meermans said.
In the private sector, telecommunications companies may consider the airship for cellular telephone signals or other communications devices.
"Here you are going to have a communications tower 13 miles high," Colting said.
Designers and manufacturers are still working to improve the ship before it goes into production.
"The more we work with it, the better it gets," Colting said.
The airship is made up of two layers. Kevlar -- the material used in bulletproof vests -- makes up the outer balloon. The inner balloon, made of the polyester Mylar, is attached to the crest of the Kevlar and fills up with helium to carry the airship to higher altitudes, Robinson said.
The helium displaces air to lift the airship, and since the inner balloon is attached to the crest of the airship's outer balloon, the craft boasts stability that most hot dog-shaped blimps lack.
Airships will range from low-altitude to high-altitude vehicles, anywhere from 76 feet to 220 feet in diameter, Robinson said. It should take 120 days to manufacture a low-altitude ship and as many as 12 months for a high-altitude airship.
The first test models were started in 1988, Robinson said.
"We applied new technology to it to give it maneuverability," he said.