Airship to provide University of Delaware with new research tool
The University of Delaware airship, to be launched this spring, with researchers Michael A. O'Neal, assistant professor of geography, and Jack Puleo, assistant professor of civil engineering. Photo by Ambre Alexander
A tail to front look at the UD airship. Photo by Doug Baker
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8:25 a.m., Jan. 22, 2009----Thanks to a generous donation from alumna Rachel Jewett Ledbetter, the University of Delaware has acquired a non-rigid airship, better known as a blimp, that will be used as an environmental research and monitoring platform for a myriad of research and education applications. Ledbetter graduated from UD in 1944 with a degree in chemistry.

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The University community was invited to view the airship, known as the Low-Altitude Environmental Analysis Dirigible (LEAD) for the first time on Tuesday, Jan. 14, in its temporary home in the Center for Applied Coastal Research. An official unveiling and dedication will take place later this spring.

Believed to be the first of its kind in a university setting, the UD blimp project crosses three colleges and is expected to impact thousands of students taking more than 50 courses, ranging from Geographic Information Science, Coastal Field Biology, Geological Oceanography, and Population Ecology to Meteorology, Surveying, Hydrology, and Microclimatology.

The brainchild of Michael A. O'Neal, assistant professor of geography, the 60-foot long blimp operates via remote control at altitudes of up to 500 meters with instrument payloads of up to 100 pounds. It has an interchangeable payload design, enabling it to be equipped with a variety of imaging instrumentation, including a laser scanner and visible, ultraviolet, and infrared cameras.

“Much of what we do in classroom settings attempts to utilize data made publicly available by other institutions or agencies,” O'Neal says. “LEAD transforms learning in the classroom by not restricting students to such data, but instead allowing them to choose the type, extent, and resolution of data collected for their particular need -- an unprecedented goal for any University.”

Depending on the instrumentation used, researchers will be able to capture data and analyze land-use and land-cover change, geomorphology, climate variability, coastal processes, landfill chemistry, and a broad variety of other environmental phenomena.

“The blimp will offer us a wonderful opportunity to fly over large sections of the coast every six months or so and note changes, at a much lower cost than renting a small plane each time,” says Jack Puleo, assistant professor of civil engineering.

One of Puleo's interests lies in using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipment to generate topographic maps of Delaware's coastline so that he can assess dune height variability and beach erosion.

Manufactured by Galaxy Blimps in Dallas, the airship underwent test runs filming sports events before the University of Delaware purchased it. However, the new high-definition television equipment used in the broadcasting industry proved too heavy for the blimp, so it was recommissioned by UD as a “research vessel.”

While research using the airship will begin soon with funding from Kent County and the University of Delaware Research Foundation (UDRF), it is not quite ready for prime time. The blimp has yet to be adorned with a decorative “skin” that will honor Mrs. Ledbetter's grandfather, Thomas Tustin Cloward, while also showing its UD affiliation.

In addition to the purchase of the blimp itself, which was enabled by Mrs. Ledbetter's donation, the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Marine and Earth Studies provided funds for accessories, including the 20-foot trailer used to transport the blimp when it is deflated.

According to Puleo, the initial seed grants from Kent County, UDRF, and others will enable the feasibility of the technology to be demonstrated. “This will give us the potential to attract large grants from agencies like the Office of Naval Research,” he says.

“The use of this tool in the university setting is limited only by the types of instrumentation that students and faculty can envision,” O'Neal says. “The project was launched in a true interdisciplinary spirit, and we're happy to have the larger research community seeking new uses for it.”

Article by Diane Kukich