Sergey Brin's 400-foot airship reportedly cleared for takeoff

Sergey Brin's 400-foot airship reportedly cleared for takeoff
The enormous Pathfinder 1 airship will soon take flight
The enormous Pathfinder 1 airship will soon take flight
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The enormous Pathfinder 1 airship will soon take flight
The enormous Pathfinder 1 airship will soon take flight
The LTA team has test-flown the Pathfinder 1 indoors
The LTA team has test-flown the Pathfinder 1 indoors
At 124 m long, Pathfinder 1 is the world's current longest airship
At 124 m long, Pathfinder 1 is the world's current longest airship
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Google co-founder Sergey Brin quietly founded LTA Research in 2015, and its massive Pathfinder 1 rigid airship prototype is preparing for its first outdoor flights, with a view to speeding up disaster response and starting zero-infrastructure cargo flights.

At 407 ft (124 m) long and 66 ft (20 m) in diameter, it's considerably longer than the "flying buttocks" of the Airlander 10, although less than half of its width. Still, LTA says it's currently the world's largest aircraft, and it must be absolutely staggering in person, approaching twice the length of an Airbus A380.

While the concept of rigid airships and the basic airframe design are a throwback to pre-Hindenburg times of the early 1900s, Pathfinder 1 uses a frame made from 3,000 welded titanium hubs, joined by some 10,000 carbon fiber-reinforced polymer tubes. These materials advances keep it light enough to fly using helium, rather than hydrogen as a lift gas.

The LTA team has test-flown the Pathfinder 1 indoors
The LTA team has test-flown the Pathfinder 1 indoors

Its outer skin is made from laminated, non-flammable Tedlar material, and it's lifted by 13 ripstop nylon bags full of helium, coated in urethane. Twelve comically small-looking electric propellers poke out from the sides and rear, each capable of rotating from -180 degrees to +180 degrees for effective directional control. These are all managed through simple joystick controls, through a fly-by-wire flight control system.

While propulsion is electric, and there's a fairly substantial battery pack on board, the prototype also runs a pair of 150-kW diesel generators – although the plan is eventually to replace these with hydrogen fuel cells. Top speed is estimated at a fairly lugubrious 75 mph (120 km/h), and the Zeppelin-designed gondola cabin beneath could carry up to 14 people. LTA estimates its cargo capacity at between 4,400 - 11,000 lb (2,000-5,000 kg).

Currently housed in a monstrous hangar in Mountain View, California, Pathfinder 1 has already flown indoors earlier this year. According to IEEE Spectrum, the company has now been awarded the special airworthiness certificate required to fly this beast outdoors – at less than 1,500 ft (460 m) of altitude, and within the boundaries of Moffett Field and the neighboring Palo Alto Airport's airspace.

Pathfinder 1, though, is merely a proof of concept, writes IEEE's Mark Harris, with a much larger, 591-ft (180-m) production-focused Pathfinder 3 already under development. Indeed, the company has taken over the massive Airdock in Akron, Ohio, a hangar big enough to house a 984-ft (300 m) airship – even bigger than the gargantuan 804 x 135-ft (245 x 41-m) Hindenburg-class airships of the 1930s, which remain to this day the largest aircraft ever built.

At 124 m long, Pathfinder 1 is the world's current longest airship
At 124 m long, Pathfinder 1 is the world's current longest airship

LTA says its chief focus is humanitarian aid; airships can get bulk cargo in and people out of disaster areas when roads and airstrips are destroyed and there's no way for other large aircraft to get in and out. Secondary opportunities include slow point-to-point cargo operations, although the airships will be grounded if the weather doesn't co-operate.

It's gonna be a helluva sight to see these enormous, grand machines back in the sky. Certainly, there are a number of programs at the moment working to get airships back into circulation. California readers, drop us a line and a picture if you see the Pathfinder in person!

Source: LTA Research via IEEE Spectrum

View gallery - 3 images
Not sure why this is considered as “slow point-to-point cargo operations” when it’s at least as fast as a semi-truck and 2-4 times faster than a sea faring cargo vessel. If these become reliable and safe enough to travel the higher altitude slip streams, they will almost fly fuel free.
Use it to haul conex from ship to shore when docks are tided up? Haul water to dump on forest fires? When micro reactors are made, haul them to disaster sites.
Haul supplies to islands or lighthouses? Haul empty instant houses to disaster sites. In Alaska haul equipment to towns or mines in remote areas.
These look essentially like classic airships, only built with modern materials. I wonder whether they will be subject to some of the same limitations, e.g. wind constraining landings and takeoffs. With fulltime vectoring props, maybe they'll just be able to hover against the wind.

(But you know eventually someone is going to give hydrogen another shot, maybe for autonomous freight carriers. We have much more fireproof and spark-resistant materials, and it would be oh-so tempting to use hydrogen fuel cells and electrolysis as part of the bouyancy control. And nitrogen purges for the interior spaces.)
Its nice to see Hangar 2 get used for it's original purpose. Too bad Google neglected Hangar 3 to the point that it now "has to be demolished" (aka: Mitigated).

The anti-general/public/military aviation crowd in SillyCon Valley managed to kill off Moffett Field only to smile when they effectively sold it to Google to be their own private playground.

That said, it *is* good to see some LTA/dirigible development going on there.

This airship appears to be nothing more than the use of modern materials applied to a very old idea. Not that this is a bad thing, but its not a big swing at the innovation bat.
So, its cargo capacity is approximately 1/4 of a single semi truck? Good for emergency use, not so great for cargo.
Sam Blake
Vanity project, no practical use. Wanna bet?
You keep banging on about 'slow'... 75mph is 20% faster than any road-going heavy goods vehicle can (legally) manage and if you take point-to-point navigation (rather than meandering around congested land-based corridors) into account, these things will probably be twice as fast as road-based haulage. Besides that, I'm sure with further development, much faster speeds will be possible (ignoring for the moment the possibility of riding 200mph+ jet streams).
Dirigibles have been a complete no-brainer since Montgolfier introduced the concept nearly 300 years ago. The fact that we are *finally* having another go 100 years after the Germans (who only failed because the US, not unreasonably, wouldn't sell the Nazis helium so they had to use hydrogen instead) is testament to the power of Big Business (Oil, principally) suppressing the technology. If you doubt this, consider the fact that approximately 70% of the energy used by a 747 goes towards keeping the machine in the air and the rest to actually moving it along.
Surely the 80+ years since Hindenburg has provides some insight into making hydrogen dirigibles safer. "Don't coat with rocket fuel." is one good lesson. There are new materials. There's advanced knowledge of static electricity and weather. There's computer modelling of what could trigger a fire, and how to avoid that. Really, the Hindenburg "disaster" has been blown way out of proportion.
good luck with the economic use case for that
Cross winds are and will always be the bain of Zepplin's creation
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