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Army Explores Miniature Aerostat Concept

MAKO may bring force protection and situational awareness benefits of an aerostat down to the small unit level

In addition to the critical communications and networking systems that the U.S. Army is testing and evaluating through its semi-annual Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) events, conducted by 2nd Brigade / 1st Armored Division at Ft. Bliss, Texas and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., the NIEs are also being utilized to explore the “rapid fielding” contributions represented by a range of emerging systems.

One of the systems explored under the recently completed NIE 12.1 was MAKO, an easy to deploy, easy to repair, scalable, modular and highly flexible tethered flight system designed to provide tactical users with maximum flexibility in meeting their coverage needs. MAKO also provides soldiers with an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system with features that include:

  • portability – (man-packable while wearing standard current combat equipment);
  • a high resolution image and full motion video surveillance camera during day/night operations; and
  • a communications repeater capability to increase dismounted patrol range and increase situational awareness.

In other words, MAKO incorporates many of the situational awareness and force protection benefits offered by large tethered aerostats, but introduces them down to the small unit level.

Mako portability

Man-packable MAKO components on display at NIE 12.1. Photo by Scott R. Gourley

Developed by SofCoast Inc., MAKO combines the characteristics of small unmanned aircraft systems, aerostats and kites in a single tethered hybrid air vehicle design.

Company descriptions point to MAKO’s ability to leverage and manage buoyant lift, aerodynamic energy, dynamic torque and drag load, adding, “Embedded in the wing set, the onboard inertial measurement unit, flight controls, GPS receiver, and flight battery enables this Hybrid Lighter Than Air System (LTAS) to react immediately to changing wind conditions and provide exceptional levels of stability and flight performance. This patented system enables the air vehicle to ‘climb’ the tether or ‘transition’ from balloon flight to aerodynamic flight unlike any other tethered inflatable device in the marketplace.”

According to Wes Inskeep, SofCoast field representative at NIE 12.1 (and president of his own company, BlankSafe, Inc.), the MAKO and associated package “is particularly good for persistent ISR and forward operating base security, especially in a tactical environment.”

MAKO Airborne NIE-12-1

A MAKO air vehicle airborne during NIE 12.1. Photo by Scott R. Gourley

“Imagine an ability to put it up at night for force protection and to give you some ‘breathing room’ around yourself,” he said. “You can put a thermal package up with it. You can put up electro-optical with night vision or other payloads. It can also be used to carry either communications gear or an antenna set aloft – and you can imagine how that would greatly improve your line of sight range for VHF and other types of radio communications.”

“It’s packaged to be two-man portable,” he added. “The rucksack is comprised of two carbon fiber-wrapped helium bottles and also contains the avionics package and electrical package. The helium bottles are wrapped in ballistic material, which gives it resistance to damage but also doubles the weight of the package. So, while the bottles alone are only 22 pounds, the ballistic material is more than 22 pounds.”

“The wing set package is not particularly heavy,” he continued. “It’s an easy two-man carry. It also comes with a bivvy sack, because the helium-filled element is stowed inflated on the ground until ready for release.”

He noted that “a commercial, fishing-style rod and reel” had been modified to serve as the tethering element.

“It takes out that line and goes straight vertical with it,” Inskeep explained. “And when you want it down you ‘reel it in’ from your base position.”

The MAKO system has been in development since June 2011. The U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) is using two systems in NIE activities and plans to send five to theater for forward area assessment.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...