Raven's Aerostar division offers peek at new systems

Kurt Sehnert and Cary Mashburn of Raven Aerostar in Sulphur Springs, Texas, prepare Wednesday to release a hand-launch balloon at a Raven Aerostar demonstration near Baltic. Photos by elisha page / news source

Sep 1st 2011, 09:35

Raven Industries Aerostar manufactures products that help save soldiers' lives in remote Afghanistan.

The Sioux Falls company's Aerostar division Wednesday demonstrated it's newest aerostat systems, essentially giant, helium balloons, the latest balloon that is six years in the making.

The company shipped its first balloon to Afghanistan on Dec. 31, 2009, and has 30 forward operating bases between U.S. and coalition forces protected by tethered aerostat systems, said Lon Stroschein, division vice president and general manger for Raven Aerostar.

The lightweight systems fly up to 3,000 feet and are equipped with technology to provide intelligence, surveillance and recognizance for the U.S. Department of Defense.

The newest balloon is made of some of the lightest, strongest fabric material on the market, Stroschein said. The TIF-75K tethered aerostat system was displayed as part of the annual Demo Days at the Raven Innovation Campus north of Sioux Falls.

Clients for aerostar products include the U.S. Department of Defense and special forces, and Stroschein hopes to target the Department of Homeland Security to use the systems for border protection. Some smaller systems also are used at NASCAR and other other sporting events, by the forestry service to watch for fires and by police departments for crowd control, Stroschein said.

The newest system is designed to fly at 5,000 feet and carry 1,000 pounds of equipment such as electrical optical infrared cameras that have facial recognition at five miles. The TIF-75K was developed and designed by engineers in Sioux Falls; Sulfer Springs, Texas; and an anonymous partner, Stroschein said.

He could not comment on the cost of any of the systems, or on the buyer of the newest model.

However, Stroschein said that aerostat systems are cheap compared to the military using a helicopter such as a Global Hawk for surveillance and security.

"One of those is $25 million before pilots, fuel, cameras and all those things," he said. (Aerostat systems) are fractional to that. You don't need pilots, you just need some good technicians who understand weather, and they're able to fly this device. So our hourly cost is about 4 or 5 percent of what a Global Hawk would be."

Also, because the aerostat systems have almost zero pressure, Stroschein said they can withstand being fired at and don't fall from the sky. They also have a listening device to pinpoint where a shot is fired.

"We've flown with as many as 45 holes in it," before the system had to be brought down and patched, he said.

Ross Brown, aerostat flight team leader for Raven Industries Aerostar, spent six months last year in Afghanistan operating the TIF-25K tethered aerostat system.

"I can undoubtedly say we saved lives," he said, adding that the system helped find insurgent activity, prevent ambushes and often could see the enemy planting IEDs and mark the location on a map.

"They had no idea we were watching," he said, He watched what the cameras picked up from a big-screen television on the ground.

Jim Clark, who retired in 2004 after working at Raven for 26 years, called the new aerostat system "unbelievable."

"If people around the country knew what was being built here, I think they'd be shocked," he said.

Fred Vandersnick, who retired in 2000, called the type of things he was doing at Raven when he started as employee number 25 in 1960, primitive.

"The stuff they're doing today is futuristic compared to what we were doing back in the day," he said. "It's unreal."

Engineering teams at Raven Aerostar always strive to be innovating, Stroschein said. He hopes to have two new products industry-ready within the next year.

Reach reporter Sarah Reinecke at 331-2326.

Written by Sarah Reinecke sreinecke@argusleader.com

Text taken from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Original article located here.