JLENS on Earth Day: Ecological & Environmental Impacts


Photograph Courtesy of Alexdi

While studies have yet to show the environmental impact of JLENS on the region (perhaps this will be incorporated into the 3-year test at the Aberdeen Proving Ground beginning this September), Skywatchdc is able to draw some conclusions through our research.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory issued a report in 2000 focusing on the environmental impacts of military testing with fixed-wing aircraft. These aircraft are often cited as the primary means of surveillance and response in the DC region. The report, titled “ECOLOGICAL RISK ASSESSMENT FRAMEWORK FOR LOW ALTITUDE OVERFLIGHTS BY FIXED-WING AND ROTARY-WING MILITARY AIRCRAFT” examines specifically the impact that noise, erosion, and collisions have on ecosystems, including data from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

More than 60% of the following bird populations in the study were significantly affected by low-altitude fixed-wing aircraft testing at a slant distance of closer than 400 meters:

  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Osprey
  • Mexican Spotted Owl
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Bald Eagle

More than 60% of the following animal populations in the study were significantly affected by low-altitude fixed-wing aircraft testing at a slant distance of closer than 500 meters:

  • Woodland Caribou
  • Walrus
  • Moose
  • Harbor Seal
  • Mountain Sheep
  • California Sea Lion
  • Pronghorn

Diagram From the ORNL Report Focusing on the Ecological Impacts of Low-Altitude Fixed-Wing Aircraft Testing on Ungulates (Hoofed Animals):


What Do We Know about JLENS and the Environment?

  1. Noise: JLENS makes very little noise, if any. It does not require speed to stay aloft, and is completely silent while at surveillance range. Minimal noise may occurs during takeoff and landing, but not at a decibel level anywhere close to fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
  2. Erosion: We don’t know yet how the mobile mooring may affect ground ecosystems, but we do know that it is significantly smaller than a landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft. Additionally, landing and takeoff create no wind (even with smaller landing areas, helicopters generate a significant amount of wind that disturbs the surrounding area).
  3. Collision: Bird collisions are both a danger to aircraft and to ecosystems. To a lesser extent, animal collisions on a runway are also a concern. JLENS is unmanned, eliminating any threat to human life. There are not yet studies on bird collisions with the aerostat or its tethers, but the risk of engines and turbines accompanied by tremendous noise is far more dangerous to birds.
  • Additional Factor: JLENS does not use fossil fuels and only requires helium gas to stay aloft for 30 days at a time. Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters contribute to air pollution.

It is safe to conclude that JLENS is more environmentally friendly than many other aircraft used for local surveillance and response. Areas of further research may include: effects on migratory birds (including tether line and surveillance altitude) and the effect of mobile mooring on land ecosystems.

Introduction to Skywatchdc

The Washington DC metro region is about to become a testing ground for a new missile defense and aerospace surveillance technology: the JLENS Aerostat. JLENS, which stands for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is designed to continuously monitor the region’s airspace, assessing the skies and mitigating threats to security. At an estimated cost of $450 million, the project has been criticized by many in Congress as too expensive given an uncertain economy and dramatic cuts in defense spending. The technology may also alter the region’s skyline. Each aerostat (similar to a blimp) will float 10,000 feet above the city, anchored to mobile moorings on the ground below. Each aerostat is about ¾ the size of a football field, or 243 feet. Recently tested in Afghanistan with cooperation from the United States armed services, manufacturer and defense contractor Raytheon promises that the JLENS system will be lower in cost than the current standard aerospace surveillance methods including fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, and ground-based radar technology.

Skywatchdc will function as a non-partisan informational resource for academic researchers, journalists, civil servants, students, and other members of the community interested in the new technology. By making this information available, accessible, and easy to understand, the public will be better equipped to form their own analysis of a new technology that may affect them in the future.

One would suspect that more and more attention will be given to the JLENS project in the coming months as the deadline for implementing the project approaches. By creating a robust web presence including blogs, social media, and links, Skywatchdc will be able to become the preeminent non-partisan resource on JLENS implementation in a civilian setting. Understanding how the technology works and what it will be used for is the first step in forming an educated opinion on whether or not JLENS should be embraced.