Airships are relatively cheap, they can carry a substantial amount of cargo, and they are significantly more environmentally friendly than their heavier-than-air relatives. Once thought to have passed into memory, the eerily quiet giants of the sky are having something of a renaissance.
Between 80 and 90% fewer emissions
After a series of spectacular crashes with tragic results, the imposing airships of the early 20th century lost out to their smaller but safer heavier aircraft relations. However, as they are also known, dirigibles are being recognized as a potential means to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve cargo connectivity in hard-to-reach regions of the world.
Over a decade ago, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called specifically for cargo operators to embrace dirigibles as a way to meet environmental targets. An airship is estimated to produce 80 to 90% fewer emissions than a conventional aircraft.
As aviation struggles to come to terms with both the worst crisis it has ever faced in COVID-19 and one of the worst crises humanity has ever faced in climate change, could airships be part of the solution? Let's take a look at what is happening in the world of lighter-than-air aircraft and the progress made towards safer airship technology.
The Hindenburg was manufactured between 1931 and 1936. Photo: Getty Images
Today, very few airships are in operation globally. The few blimps flying either function as promotional material at US college football or other sporting events or cater to tourists looking for novel ways of exploring Germany. However, a few companies are hoping to change that.
Hybrid Air Vehicles
The next major event to happen in dirigible history is scheduled to begin in 2023. Swedish company OceanSky Cruises has begun marketing trips to the North Pole in its 'luxury cocoon'. The vehicle in question is an Airlander 10.
It is a hybrid airship developed by the British firm Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) and worth $32.89 million. The ship is 92 meters long, cruises at 92 miles per hour, and can go for five full days in the sky. Max altitude for the Airlander is 20,000 feet.
The Airlander 10 will feature a glass bottom for views of the landscape below. Photo: Hybrid Air Vehicles
Aerostatic and aerodynamic
The Airlander 10 took its first flight in August 2012. It was originally constructed for the US army under the name HAV 304 and intended for carrying out surveillance over Afghanistan. However, the army terminated the project, and HAV modified the world's longest aircraft for civilian use. Its luxurious interior now comes complete with a glass floor, allowing passengers unobstructed views of the landscapes they pass over.
The aircraft has been nicknamed 'the flying buttocks' due to its posterior-shaped form. It consists of a helium airship with auxiliary wing and tail surfaces. Furthermore, it is powered by four diesel-engine drive propellers and utilizes both aerodynamic and aerostatic lift in order to fly. HAV's goal is to make the airship entirely emissions-free by 2030.
Some have nicknamed the Airlander 10 'the flying buttocks'. It is easy to see why. Photo: Philbobagshot via Wikimedia Commons
Commercial passenger airships not dead
Whereas there are no overt plans for taking on the commercial flight market with the Airlander, do not rule it out, says Rebecca Zeitlin, media and communications manager for HAV. In 2019, she told the BBC
“Commercial passenger transport isn’t dead either. We’re definitely talking to people who would like to use the craft to move people in a more traditional way because there is quite a strong flight-shaming movement who think ‘I’d rather take longer, pay more and generate fewer emissions.”
The company also has plans for an Airlander 50, which could take up to 200 passengers.
The Airlander 10 could be joined by a model that could take up to 200 people. Photo: HAV
The Flying Whales of Jingmen
Halfway across the world, others are also betting on the return of airships to potentially revolutionize air transport. French manufacturer Flying Whales and state-owned China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co announced in 2019 that they were planning to begin production of a series of giant airships by 2022 in Jingmen. The governments of Canada and France have also invested in the project.
The airship, LCA60T, is designed to be 154 meters long and 42 meters tall. For comparison, the Airbus A380 is 73 meters long and 24.1 meters tall. It will be able to carry 60 metric tons of cargo and travel at up to 62 miles per hour. It is equipped with a hybrid electric distributed propulsion system.
“We decided to equip the first airship with hybrid propulsion first because we think today, we are in a world in which we cannot create new industrial tools without taking into account the protection of the environment. A hybrid electric propulsion is not the perfect saver for the environment, but it’s a good first step,” Romain Schalck, Market Manager at Flying Whales, told Air Liquide in 2020.
Mr Schalck added that the goal is to transition to a fully electric system by using a hydrogen fuel cell that can be carried on board the dirigible. Flying Whales has said it expects 150 of them to be operational in a decade's time.
Are urban unmanned dirigibles the future?
Meanwhile, Avolon Airships has designed EOS. It is a smaller zero-emissions uncrewed airship vehicle. Specifically intended to assist first responder services in urban environments such as policing, surveillance, ambulance, and rescue services, it can also be used commercially in areas such as freight, entertainment, and farming.
What small design firm Avalon Airships unmanned EOS could look like. Photo: Avalon Airships
Airships may not challenge the regular fixed-wing aircraft for commercial passenger transportation any time soon. Meanwhile, they could provide a potentially environmentally sound solution to delivering large volumes of cargo.
This includes to regions lacking in infrastructure, such as airfields. Their potential application in more urban environments should also not be entirely excluded - if the world's supply of helium does not run out, which is a real issue of concern.
However, for now, if you wish to fly on one, the best bet is probably to save up the $79,000 OceanSky is charging for its North Pole airship excursion.
What do you make of the future of the airship? Leave a comment below and let us know.