Modern airships

Airships havent’t been big since the days of Hindenburg, but now they are making a comeback. We chatted to Chris Daniels, Head of Partnerships and Communications at Hybrid Air Vehicles, to find out more about the Airlander 10.


Why have you decided to make a hybrid airship?

For 100 years there’s been two ways of flying, aerostatically (lighter than air) or aerodynamically (heavier than air). Lighter than air is really efficient but the problem with it is that it tends to be weather affected and needs a lot of ground infrastructure. Heavier than air is very controllable and can go at quicker speeds. If you can combine them you get the best of both worlds and that’s what we’ve done. We can carry pretty much anything more efficiently than any other aircraft whether it be cargo, passengers or fuel. Essentially, ultra long endurance while carrying a lot of stuff. There’s a $50 billion US market out there for grabs!


How does it work? How is it part airship and part plane?

It’s a helium filled wing. One of the big problems with airships is that because they’re lighter than air, you need a lot of ground crew and it’s difficult for them to take off in high winds. We’ve effectively made an airship heavier than air. What that does is gives us some controllability and less ground crew. 20-20mph of air can easily counterbalance the heavier than air weight it has. Within a body length or two it can takeoff.


Modern airships

The Airlander 10 will assist heavy lifting tasks in remote areas


How is it different from the airships of old?

The fundamental difference is that significant amount of aerodynamic lift. 40 per cent of our lift comes aerodynamically. It can also carry much more stuff despite being a smaller aircraft. The biggest airships in history could carry around 50 tons and they were about three times the length of the Airlander 10. We have a really modern aircraft with the latest composite materials. The engine cowling the fuel tank and the cabin are all made from carbon composites, while the hull is made from America’s Cup sail technology and is a mix of a protective plasticised layer of Tedlar carbon fibre with mylar sandwiched in between to stop helium escaping. There’s no internal structure in our airship. It’s strong enough to maintain its own shape without having an internal frame, which saves a lot of weight and less susceptible to structural issues. 20 years ago, the technology for this aircraft didn’t exist.


How environmentally friendly and energy efficient is the Airlander 10?

In a like for like task compared to an airplane or a helicopter it burns between 25-30 per cent of the fuel. This is without all the other issues associated with a plane like the construction of an airport and getting to and from airports. We’ve got a project looking at an all-electric version of the Airlander. An electric engine has been developed that is of the same horsepower as our current engines. We don’t have the size limitations of standard aircraft so we can have almost unlimited battery power on board, which would allow us to fly for a lot longer. Following on from that, at some point we would like to use much more efficient solar panels, which would cover the entire surface of the Airlander. So right now we have a low carbon aircraft but in the future we will have a zero carbon aircraft.


Modern airships

An artist’s impression of the Airlander 10 in flight


What sort of alternatives or advantages does it provide to current aircraft?

For cargo we will be able to get to remote areas cheaper than any other method. We can get bridges into the middle of nowhere, transport mining equipment and wind farms into remote areas while not having to destroy the landscape with a road or a train track. It’s these sorts of tasks over short haul and long haul that we can provide.


In the passenger market we’re not going to compare with the big companies but what we can provide a unique tourism and leisure experience. If you wanted to go an visit Machu Picchu, the Pyramids or the Grand Canyon in an accessible and comfortable way, this is the mode of transport for you.


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