How Airships Could Overcome a Century of Failure

How Airships Could Overcome a Century of Failure

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Airships have always gotten people's attention. Airships are magical. They're fascinating. Whenever a film director or producer wants to telegraph this is an alternate reality, you'll see an airship in the sky. We see that already.

There are several airship projects that are already been initiated, so it seems that the airship industry has been reborn. Nearly a century after falling out of favor, airships could be on the rise again, this time as a potential solution to one of the most elusive problems in aerospace, reducing emissions. The tremendous amount of the fuel burned by an airliner is burned simply to stay in the air, and an airship doesn't need to do that. Backed by new research and technology, companies are aiming to take advantage of this free lift to fill in some gaps underserved by current infrastructure. And of course, there's always the excitement factor. It's something that is very attractive to people as an idea.

It's a type of aircraft that seems to generate an emotional response But for airships to go from alternative reality to a reality, they'll need to support a business case that can overcome nearly a century of failure. Oh, the humanity! If you look at it, every project ever failed regarding large capacity airship. You don't have large airship in the sky. It's interesting that we don't look back on things like the Titanic as the end of shipping, because shipping has been an economically viable and mainstream part of our transport networks ever since.

The first thing to reshape that narrative on the technology is to make it an economically viable proposition. A century ago, airships, dirigibles, and Zeppelins were at the cutting edge of luxury transport. Ferrying passengers non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, decades before the jet age. Today, the number of active airships has dwindled to a few dozen worldwide, mostly used for novelty rides or as floating billboards. But a handful of brave companies around the world are trying to make them into a more common sight in the skies. Some like LTA Research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, have been rather secretive about their plans.

Other companies have only released computer-generated visions of what they hope to build. A few, however, have been able to actually fly a prototype. It is the largest aircraft in the world.

Makers boasted that they had created a new breed of hyper-efficient aircraft. This is the Airlander 10, endearingly nicknamed "The Flying Buttocks". It makes up for what it lacks in style by offering what could be one of the greenest ways to travel by air. Using around 1.2 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air helium, the craft can cruise at a top speed of about 80 miles per hour. Originally designed as a surveillance platform by the U.S. military,

the project was canceled in 2013, but UK-based manufacturer Hybrid Air Vehicles would eventually re-acquire the project to bring it to market. So, it's a carbon-fiber construction. And as you can see, as you come in here, into the flight deck element, there's loads of space here. If you are the pilot, your view out is amazing. From an aircraft-development perspective, you can do a huge amount on paper.

You can do a huge amount in simulation and wind tunnels, but it's getting a new configuration into flight. That's the big milestone because you learn a lot. Its second test flight left some onlookers feeling, let's just say, deflated. Oh my God, he's actually just broken it. Thankfully, far from the worst airship disaster of all time, the Airlander eventually returned to the skies for more testing. Since 2017, this Airlander 10 prototype resides mostly in pieces at HAV's headquarters, just over an hour outside London.

As troubling as it looks, falling, ideally or gracefully, is actually a key feature of how the craft flies. As the company name Hybrid Air Vehicle suggests, Airlander is what's known as a hybrid airship that is achieving lift from a combination of conventional airship design and aerodynamic attributes from other flying aircraft. The principal element at play is helium, the lighter-than-air gas that has the added perk of being non-flammable.

Unlike the hydrogen that doomed the infamous Hindenburg. Just like a toy balloon, with enough helium, the ship will rise, essentially free lift. The trouble with free lift is it's always there. And so we had to find a way of making the aircraft work more easily in terms of how things were loaded onto it and off it. And they made the operation for the the whoever's flying it easier.

We've done that by making the aircraft generate aerodynamic lift. So it takes off and lands like a conventional aircraft, although in a really short space. That lift is effectively only lifting the payload. That's the easiest way to think of it. This means that without the aerodynamic lift, the craft is actually heavier than air, more like an airplane.

Without the lift generated by forward motion, the airship sinks down and more importantly, stays on the ground. And the reason that's important is because getting on board and offboard an airplane, taking a shipping container on board or offboard an airplane, it's a lot easier if you're on the ground. And some of the large airships would use, you know, ground crews of up to 500 people to get them out of hangers and move them around. Even the smaller airships of today have got significant ground crew. With a hybrid aircraft, we're on the ground for that loading and unloading cycle.

It allows us to turn the aircraft around quickly and drive the economics, the economic performance of the aircraft as an asset. This means the craft can take off and land from any reasonably flat surface like grass, water, or even ice. And according to HAV, the base model that uses four combustion engines will reduce CO2 emissions by 75% over comparable aircraft. And future plans to have a hybrid electric engine would reduce emissions by 90% with the goal to eventually create a truly emissions-free craft. HAV believes that this combination of technologies will make Airlander both eco-conscious and economically viable for applications ranging from surveillance, logistics, cargo transport, and even passenger travel.

When I think about passenger transport, it's such an exciting space to move a technology like this into because it can change our expectations. Right now, if we want to make a journey here in the UK, say, from the Northwest of the UK to Ireland, we've got a body of water to cross. And our choices are to travel out to an airport, do it very fast, but very short flight and then travel back in from the airport.

at the other end. Or we can get on a ferry that's three times the journey length. And the right thing to do here from a carbon-footprint perspective is to get on the ferry. But it's such a time-impact for people. With Airlander, what we offer is almost a high-speed train of the sky. Added to that, the aircraft will go point to point.

It's not constrained to airports that we have today. So like a helicopter, it'll take off and land away from the airport. So we can open up a whole new journey. I mean, an obvious example is going to the North Pole. HAV advertises that Airlander will be able to carry passengers to remote areas like the North Pole on three-day excursions, covering up to 2,000 nautical miles at cruising speeds of around 60 miles per hour.

A bit like with a helicopter, you can similarly take helicopters to almost anywhere, but the range of a helicopter's very short, whereas, you know, we can go on a three-day cruise if you like, with a stop at the North Pole. Their first commercial target is to bring this experience to the luxury travel market. So I'm sat here in our leisure cabin demonstrator here with the bar, with social spaces. And what you can't see is down at the other end of this cabin from where I'm sat, there are eight double-bedrooms for overnight cruises. This allows the leisure sector to offer their clients experiences that you just can't get anywhere else.

Their approach hearkens back to the early 20th century, when luxurious airships were the premium option for well-healed passengers on trans-Atlantic journeys. But building a sophisticated-looking bar and filling it with an impressive wine selection is still a far away from a happy hour in the skies. Luxury travelers who are going to be paying a tremendous amount of money are probably gonna compare this maybe to a cruise ship. They're used to having a private bathroom with their bedroom. They're used to doing things like taking showers, and you know, using water in the sink.

You need to cater to their needs with a relatively high staff-to-passenger ratio if you're gonna deliver a luxury product. And everything I just mentioned is heavy. A cruise ship on the ocean doesn't really need to worry so much about the weight of things. You always have to look at the alternative. We're gonna use an airship or we're gonna use X, right? So let's say X is a high speed rail line. So if you look at a place like Europe, high-speed trains can connect city center to city center.

And high-speed trains go a lot faster than any airship can. They carry a lot of people. They're very environmentally friendly. Are airship's beautiful, and magical, and wonderful? Of course they are, right? But is a high-speed train line make more sense to go from Berlin to Hamburg? Yeah, it probably does. And in fact it almost certainly does. HAV though, believes Airlander can serve a gap in areas where such infrastructure is lacking at a much lower cost.

Yeah, we've got hugely invested, high-speed rail infrastructure in Europe. There's lots of parts of the world where a lot of movements are over water. There's a lot of parts of the world where we've got big geographic boundaries, mountain ranges, and so forth.

And so, in both of those cases, you know, the ability to put ground surface infrastructure is constrained. You know, big infrastructure programs needed if you're gonna open up high-speed rail. Big infrastructure programs if you're gonna tunnel under the sea, rather than fly over it, where Airlander can step in with a very infrastructure-light solution and an experience. And a travel experience is very equivalent to a high-speed rail of the skies. Beyond passenger travel, the prospect of low-emission transport without the need for major infrastructure, could also have a profound impact in another space, cargo. This is the LTA60T, an airship with a cargo capacity of up to 60 tons, making it even larger than HAV's Airlander 10.

It's the dream of Paris-based company aptly named "Flying Whales". The reason why we created "Flying Whales" is actually to solve a major issue we have in France. Forest industry was the second contributor to the France trade balance deficit because we have a lot of resource, but there is no return investment to build road and tracks to pick up the logs and bring it to the saw mill. So we had to invent a solution to go by the air With funding from the French government, "Flying Whales" began to develop an airship that could fly into the remote mountains of France to retrieve logs for processing into lumber. As you might guess from only seeing computer-generated renderings, the company has yet to build a full prototype. But they believe that after nearly a decade, they're getting close.

So we've been through, something like four years of what I call "de-risking phase" on technology, markets. It's actually, ultimately, it's half-a-billion Euro project. And you, you have to be sure about what you do when you invest so much money.

And in 2017, we were pretty much all convinced and then we actually launched the engineering project. So here is the global view. You can see the external shape details here, the stations for the propellers. On the left side, on the right side, and also the stations for the zed propellers. We are very huge, 200 meters in length and 50 meters in height.

And we have a rigid body which means we don't change shape according to the environmental conditions. This model of the LTA60T is designed to carry wood logs, but the company believes it can also be used to efficiently carry other cumbersome cargo like high-voltage towers or wind turbine blades. Transporting large bulky items on today's infrastructure, let's just say, can run into some challenges. Oh, my God! And for remote areas like Northern Canada, it could open up entirely new industries from resources in regions lacking traditional land or air infrastructure. But with airships, loading and unloading cargo has a big technical caveat.

The load-exchange problem in an airship carrying cargo is that when you release the cargo and you release its weight, what's gonna stop the airship from just popping up into the sky because it's now a lot lighter? So you gotta exchange that load somehow. There are a few different ways to overcome this. The most obvious solution might be to dynamically adjust the quantity of gas. But helium while much safer than hydrogen, is also much more expensive to acquire.

So adding and releasing large quantities during each flight, isn't economically feasible. But there may be another physics-based solution here. By compressing or decompressing the helium, you could change the airship's lift while in flight.

This is ultimately the best solution. And some of our competitors are trying to develop this. The problem we have with this solution that it's very heavy. Compressor and tanker are very heavy, so it needs a lot of R and D.

And I think this technology is gonna be available in something like 5 to 10 years. Until then, another option is off-setting weight with engine thrust, but this would largely defeat the efficiency benefits of an airship in the first place. Instead "Flying Whales" is considering a more balanced solution. If a trip calls for transporting say, 30 tons of wind turbine blades, it would need to pick up another 30 tons to replace the weight after drop off with the help of thrusters to help compensate during the transfer process.

In the example of retrieving wood from remote regions, it would need to carry the equivalent weight in water on the trip out. Then dispense that water dynamically as it lifts wood in order to achieve balance, which visually at least, kind of looks like a flying whale. In theory, it can be simple, but impractical, it is not.

Because it's a dynamic period. And during this dynamic period, you have to be very careful on the equilibrium between buoyancy and weight. As if this didn't sound complicated enough, airships face another major vulnerability, weather. The side of an airship is like a giant wall. It's like a giant sail. And there is something we call "Sail Effect".

If you have a really, really big airship, even a gentle wind multiplied by the huge expanse of the side of an airship, can really move that airship in a way that it can't move a smaller vehicle, like a small airplane. To compensate for wind, the LTA60T has a series of propellers positioned all the around the aircraft. These axes help us to control the airship in a longitudinal, vertical, and a directional way. This ultimately limits application to areas with stable-enough weather conditions where this weight exchange can safely occur.

Despite all of these obstacles, "Flying Whales" still envisions viable application for airships. Transport business is very tough. There is a lot of competition, so margins are very small. So it's useless to try to come with a new solution, say, "Okay, look, guy we're gonna replace what you do because we have a green solution or a lock solution."

No, that doesn't work. When the system is already existing in the transport solution with low margin, you cannot replace it. So we just look at where we really provide a huge gap in terms of cost or capacity regarding the existing.

And in addition, of course, we will strongly reduce the environmental impact. The niche that "Flying Whales" is targeting is currently served by a more common site in the sky, helicopters. Based on benchmark tests, "Flying Whales" claims that their airship could save 15 times the carbon emissions and carry three times more payload than the best performing heavy-lift helicopters, while still being cheaper to produce.

The helicopter has been developed to transport very, very fast people from point A to point B. I mean, planes have been developed to go very fast, very, very far. Okay. In our case, we are something like a flying crane. We are today, the designer of the airship, but tomorrow we'll be the producer and the operator. So, in the future, our business model will be based on two things.

The production and direct sale of the airship by Flying Whales Industry. And the transportation services provided by Flying Whales Services. "Flying Whales" hopes to be flying their airship by late 2024.

In the meantime, they will test and finalize their design while working with aviation regulators to approve the designs for flight. You know, building any new aircraft, getting any brand new aircraft design certificated by the, you know, certificating authorities is a very, very expensive project. Now, when you're building on a previous iteration of something, you know, you're turning a 757 into a 767 or a 727 into a 737, you're still certificating new aircraft. It's still a lot of engineering. It's still a lot of expense, but you're starting with something.

Building an airship in the 2020s is sort of starting with a blank slate because nobody's had a giant airship since the 1930s. But what if money isn't everything? At least in the beginning? Achieving our goals in preserving the planet might take a mix of ingenuity and adopting unconventional approaches. And that begins with niche applications of new, unproven, and even unprofitable tech, for the time being at least.

The two challenge you have is first to prepare your shareholders. It's gonna be very long. It's gonna cost a lot.

Okay. And the second thing, which is actually one of my major challenge is to keep your team motivated. When you have a young engineer coming in the company and after two years, three years, five years, six years, you have to tell them, "Well, you still have four years before you're going to see that flying". It is very difficult.

We are seeing a lot of companies talk about airships. We're not seeing a lot of companies building airships. There are things that an airship can do better than anything else.

It's just that there are not very many of those things, right? It's always gonna be a niche player. If it's gonna be a player at all, it's going to fill a very, very narrow niche. Coming into this business and leading this business, it's been really, really important to build our understanding and build our customer's understanding and finances understanding of the market gap that exists that we don't usually spot because it's a gap. We're not good and attuned at seeing gaps until after somebody comes and puts a product into them. In aviation, we're dream makers and dream deliverers, and you get it right and that's true, but you get the economics wrong and it's not.

2022-03-04 00:27

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