Part Two: Spirit of Dallas

This article is the second part of a multi-part series, Part One: ‘The Path of the Spirit’ can be found at the following link:

Having conducted numerous flight trials at the Dallas Executive Airport, Galaxy Blimps LLC was ready to demonstrate for ESPN that they could provide a new and compelling video feed for their NHRA broadcast. This feed was to be “Goodyear Blimp”-like HD aerial video from points around the track, and was theoretically no different than other airship feed that had been provided by blimps in the past; with three major differences.

Cineflex V14HD

The first being no pilot or camera operator in the blimp, the second being that the airship will be significantly closer to the action, and lastly the cost has been significantly reduced. The “Goodyear”-like airship footage was actually being provided by a 60 foot long unmanned airship remotely piloted from the ground, and the Cineflex HD broadcast quality video turret providing the footage was also being remotely operated from a ground shelter. The unmanned airship will be flying in full compliance with FAA regulations at an altitude ranging from 100ft to 400ft above the NHRA venue.

This setup sounds like something one would expect to hear in future headlines as UAS technologies begin to make their way into domestic markets. This future like scenario would also require the FAA to open the national airspace (NAS) to unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for commercial use, which has been “coming soon” for almost a decade. However, the events being described and the subsequent milestones all happened at the Firebird International Raceway in Phoenix, AZ in early 2008, prior to FAA rules being revised to make these activities illegal.

As the fireworks exploded nearby and the NHRA broadcast kicked off, Galaxy Blimp’s airship was positioned above the track, having been launched from a clearing on the grounds of the raceway. In order to avoid issues with “sense and avoid” and to integrate the blimp into the surrounding airspace as safely as possible, the pilot, Tony White, was remotely piloting the blimp within his line-of-sight at all times. The HD video feed was being wirelessly fed into the booth and the first set of cars came to the starting line.

60 ft Blimp providing coverage of the Houston, TX NHRA event

With an earth shaking roar, the dragsters raced down the track, while the Cineflex turret tracked their every movement, keeping both cars in frame as they streaked across the finish line.  ESPN had indicated to the Galaxy team that it is not their policy to allow brand new video delivery technologies onto the broadcast and that the footage provided would only be fed into the broadcast booth to test integration and feasibility. The Galaxy team decided to be prepared for possible on-air use regardless, by hiring a seasoned camera operator with experience providing Cineflex aerial footage to ESPN in the past from manned helicopters and blimps.

Galaxy Blimps 60ft Unmanned Airship as seen on ESPN2 in 2008 (click pic to see the footage)

After a few races, the Cineflex operator came on Galaxy’s wireless voice communications saying “uuhh…guys, we’re on air…”, it turns out that the integration into the booth was so seamless, that the director did not know it was a test technology and started using it. The airship’s video was used heavily throughout the remainder of the day. Before long the airship was providing “lead-in” footage for going in and out of commercial breaks, and requests were constantly coming in for places to position the airship.

The airship was launched and recovered numerous times throughout the day to refuel and check on systems, as it was being heavily used and the team wanted to ensure their prototype was performing as intended. After the day’s successful broadcast, ESPN decided to just use the blimp as part of the broadcast for the rest of the weekend and even promoted the airship in the broadcast. As this was a trial run, the airship was not carrying banners or signage. The Galaxy pilot was using a radio to communicate with incoming air traffic, and the team had a spotter in place to help identify flight paths. Various helicopters and banner-towing manned aircraft were all operating in and around the venue with no issues seeing and communicating with the blimp and its pilot.

Upon completion of the NHRA weekend, ESPN and Galaxy agreed to do another proof-of-concept run in an upcoming event in Houston, TX. The weather for the Houston NHRA event was forecasted to be overcast and windy with a good probability of showers. This provided Galaxy the opportunity to test just how rugged the system was, as they prepared to setup in a muddy field near the racetrack. This event was coordinated in similar fashion with local FAA offices and once again the airship was successfully deployed and utilized in the NAS with no issues.

The event was similarly intended to prove the viability of providing HD wireless video with an unmanned system on a live broadcast. Additionally, the Galaxy team wanted to conduct a market study of blimp sponsorship, and reached out to GEICO Powersports to conduct an advertising value assessment. The idea was to add signage to the airship, and work in scripted blimp promotions during the broadcast.

Galaxy Blimps Team (from left to right) Andy Holcomb, Ray Resendez, Tony White, and Jason White

Throughout the weekend the weather was constantly changing from clear to overcast and windy with occasional showers. The airship performed flawlessly throughout the event and provided aerial video in winds up to 40knots with a cloud ceiling as low as 400 feet. Eventually the NHRA event was suspended and postponed due to high winds and inclement weather. The airship remained deployed throughout and provided aerial coverage whenever the event was running. During this event the airship was able to remain flight ready despite the heavy winds and rain. While moored, the airship demonstrated excellent survivability and was deployed, maintained, and re-packed for transport home with a crew of only four.

With the successful deployment and testing of the 60 foot prototype airship into the NAS, at multiple events, the Galaxy team focused efforts on the completion of their next generation airship. The design and construction of the 75 foot production line unmanned airship was underway. During this time Tony White was also in communications with the FAAs Advisory Rules Committee (ARC) as a lighter-than-air subject matter expert providing feedback, information, and real world lessons learned from successfully deploying Galaxy’s unmanned systems in the NAS over the span of a decade. The FAA ARC was formed to provide research and recommendations for the FAA in regards to integrating UAS into the NAS.

The years of hard work and devotion spanning over two generations was coming together rapidly. The brothers had proven that not only was the technology viable, but it was also rugged, practical and ready for prime time. The industry was also ready; the only thing missing was a path to true certification for operations in the NAS. However, progress was being made through the promise of the FAA ARC and Galaxy had already accumulated an impressive paper trail of flight authorizations through local FAA field offices.

The spirit that had been planted in the two boys at youth, through the inspiration of their pioneering father, was coming to fruition. Valuable real world experience and lessons learned from the 60 foot prototype were rolled into the much improved 75 foot production airship, which had been dubbed the “Spirit of Dallas”. Galaxy was again looking skyward as flight trials of the newly christened “Spirit of Dallas” were set to begin, and the next step in the evolution of the industry was about to lift off.

Galaxy Blimps 75ft long “Spirit of Dallas” rolling out of the hangar at the Dallas Executive Airport (click image to see a video of the 75ft Airship in action)

Part 3: FAA Regulations Revised and the Race to Quantico!

…to be continued

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