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The Israel Aircraft Industries is developing a craft 200 meters long and 60 meters wide that will be geostatically positioned 21 kilometers in the air to photograph objects as far away as 1,000 kilometers, sending the images back to a ground station.

"It will be an airship the size of a football field, nothing like it in the world," says engineer Avi Baum, head of the R&D department at Malam in the IAI. "The quality of the photographs will be very high, with optimum resolution. The quality will be good enough to read the license plates on moving cars on highways."

Meanwhile, the first two out of 100 F-16I fighter jets purchased from the United States are due to arrive at an Israel Air Force base in the south of the country Thursday, Israel Radio reported.

The airship will be able to carry a variety of payloads for both civilian and military purposes. The platform could serve as a communications transponder between planes, satellites and the ground, capable of intelligence gathering and other purposes. The plane could provide broadband Internet, relay TV and radio signals, monitor air, land and naval traffic, as well as provide weather forecasting services.

The development plan, which is still only in the feasibility study stage, is under the supervision of the defense establishment's weapons development administration and has received the blessings of the Defense Ministry's top management. Current calculations say a prototype could be operationally ready within four years.

The idea was born at Malam in the mid-1990s. Baum says it was "a brainstorm by a team of engineers. We looked at the space between the atmosphere and space where planes, whether manned or not, or satellites don't go. We thought about how to develop something that would be less expensive than satellites."

They were not the first to think about such airships. But they decided to deal with a technological challenge so far unsolved, of- how to give an airplane the ability to remain geostatic, meaning remaining stationary above a specific place on the earth, to serve a as a kind of airborne watchtower over a given area. Theoretically, says Baum, the plane could be unmanned and remain aloft for as long as three years, changing its position on the order of ground stations. And unlike satellites, it could be brought back to earth safely and refitted, upgraded and reused.

Part of the challenge is to devise solar panels that would collect solar energy, which could be converted into electricity for operating the plane's systems.

Malam is considered a pioneer in breakthrough technologies. It developed and manufactures the Arrow missile and the Shavit missile launcher, which foreign sources say is an offshoot of the Jericho intercontinental ballistic missile. In the mid-1990s, Yair Ramati was head of future developments at the company and gave his approval. "We tried pushing the plan with the American administration and domestic defense agencies," says Baum. "But nobody listened. We reached the conclusion we were ahead of the time with the idea. And Yair made the courageous decision to do what engineers don't like to do, and put the project on hold."

But about 18 months ago, a new engineering team, headed by Baum reexamined the problem. This time, the team was able to prove the potential for the solar-powered airplane. Ramati, now CEO at the company, was persuaded the idea was possible and that Malam had the engineering capability to develop it.

The plan calls for the plane to be divided into two separate compartments, one containing air and the other helium. On the ground, most of the plane would be full of air. The helium would be compressed, making it heavier than air. But to lift off, the helium would gradually by released and fill the air pockets. "It is similar to what happens in a submarine, in reverse," said Baum, "with water filling the air compartments, but to rise, the water is pumped out and the air pumped in."

To keep the plane in geostationary position, a steering mechanism would be needed, based on a large rear propeller controlled by an electric motor. Since the idea is for the plane to remain aloft for a very long time, there would be a need for a continual supply of energy. That leads to the need for solar panels on the upper surface of the plane, collecting energy during the day and storing it in fuel cells.

No runway is necessary for launching the plane, and it could be made of very flexible lightweight polymers. The current specifications say the plane would weigh only 10 tons and carry payloads of about 1.9 tons.

With the feasibility study competed, the IAI now faces the challenge of finding the estimated $100-150 million to build it. Malam, says Baum, is seeking an international partner for the project, while also considering industrial partners. Lockheed Martin is also at work on a similar concept, and the Israeli project has been presented to it. One possibility is for the two companies to join forces.