A spy blimp with a supercomputer could be over Afghanistan by the fall of 2011

Wired Danger room reports of an ambitious, $211 million crash program called “Blue Devil” to put up a giant spy blimp with an extremely powerful supercomputer over Afghanistan. It will be seven times the size of the Goodyear Blimp.

The idea behind the Blue Devil is to have up to a dozen different sensors, all flying on the same airship and talking to each other constantly. The supercomputer will crunch the data, and automatically slew the sensors in the right direction: pointing a camera at, say, the guy yapping about an upcoming ambush.

The goal is to get that coordinated information down to ground troops in less than 15 seconds.

The first phase of the Blue Devil project is already underway. Late last year, four modified executive planes were shipped to Afghanistan, and equipped with an array of surveillance gear.

Phase two — the airship — will be considerably bigger, and more complex. The lighter-than-aircraft, built TCOM LP, will longer than a football field at 350 feet and seven times the size of the Goodyear Blimp at 1.4 million cubic feet.

“It’s freakishly large,” says a source close to the program. “One of the largest airships produced since World War II.”

The Air Force hopes that the extra size should give it enough fuel and helium to stay aloft for as much as a week at a time at nearly four miles up.

The airship will have the equivalent of 2,000 single-core servers, so it can process up to 300 terabytes per hour. So instead of just sending all the footage to the infantrymen, like most of today’s sensors, the airship’s processors will crunch the information, adding meta tags like location and time. Ground troops will query a server on the airship, which will only broadcast the stuff they’re interested in.

Northrop Grumman is working on longer duration hybrid air vehicles. It’s supposed to float at 20,000 feet for up to three weeks at a time This would be three times as long as the vehicle that is to be deployed this year. The Northrop Grumman hybrid airship will take another 4-5 years.

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