Aircraft

The airship finally takes off - Hybrid Air Vehicles has first civil customer

The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in Discovery Air livery
The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in Discovery Air livery
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The Hybrid Air Vehicles airship
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The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in military mode
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The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in military mode
The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in Discovery Air livery
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The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in Discovery Air livery

The famous and well documented Hindenburg disaster of 1937, when the hydrogen-filled airship burst into flames whilst attempting to tether to its moorings in New Jersey, killed off the 'lighter-than-air' aircraft industry, as well as 35 unfortunate souls. Since the 1970's however, a determined band of, mostly British, aviation engineers has been battling to design and build a commercially viable 'air vehicle'. Many false starts, experimental craft and research projects followed (funded mostly by the U.S. military) but viability remained elusive, until now.

Hybrid Air Vehicles, a British Company founded in 2007 by the late Roger Munk and a direct descendant of those previously unsuccessful efforts, has recently achieved two massive commercial wins that seem to indicate that the airship has a very rosy future indeed. The clue is in the company name, however. These are not the cigar-shaped gas-filled 'balloons' of yesteryear but hi-tech semi-rigid lifting bodies that rely on vectored thrust from onboard engines and the aero-lift from the body shape for up to 40 percent of their lifting capacity with helium providing the rest. In addition, the use of pontoons on the underside of the hull that feature hovercraft-like skirts and driven fans means that that the aircraft can land on earth, concrete or water without ground crew.

This versatility plus an ability to stay airborne for 21 days and a potential lifting capacity of up to 200 tonnes finally enabled HAV to win a US$517million contract (€370million) in conjunction with Northrop Grumman to supply a Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) to the U.S. Army for deployment in Afghanistan starting in 2012. Whilst the LEMV is a relatively small vehicle designed for surveillance, HAV has now announced a civil customer for their heavy-lift variant.

The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in military mode
The Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lifter in military mode

Discovery Air Innovations of Canada has agreed to purchase a number of vehicles capable of lifting 50 tonnes and making way at 100 knots (185 km/h/115 mph) with the intention of providing cargo services to remote regions of the 'frozen North' at greatly reduced cost. Construction of the first vehicles will start in 2012 with commercial service beginning in Canada in 2014. DAI may buy up to 50 of the vehicles over time depending on how operations progress.

Hybrid Air Vehicles see a large number potential uses for their craft in mapping and geographic monitoring, in humanitarian aid provision, offshore drilling support and, of course, luxury tourism. With these two major contracts in their pocket it looks as if the era of the airship has finally come, again.

50 comments
Trevor Hunt
Hi Folks, This new deal between Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd and Discovery Air is great news. A lot of people get airships and HAV's mixed up in performance and handling terms. Airships did have a lot of diadvantages in ground handling in particular, but HAV's were designed by the best of the British designers to overcome those disadvantages with the availability of aerodynamic lift, vectored thrust, bow thruster and twin hoverskirts. The new flatter shape only produces one quarter of the force in a side gust that an airship form does, which in combination with the twin hoverskirts makes them easy to load and unload on the ground without using a mast. Regards JB (Airship & Blimp Consultant)
WellFedEd
\"Air Innovations of Canada has agreed to purchase a number of vehicles capable of lifting 50 tonnes and making way at 100 knots (185 km/h/115 mph) with the intention of providing cargo services to remote regions of the \'frozen North\' at greatly reduced cost.\" Can we say goodbye Ice Road Truckers.
Stephen Lawrence
I kinda hope that a very version of this craft would be ideal for ferrying organs for transport between hospitals - unmanned and at high speed.
Jürg
Just had a fantastic flight in a Zeppelin NT in Friedrichshafen/Germany. I wonder how people think that they can do this without ground-crew? For one thing loading and offloading a Airship is quite a interesting thing. As the helium balances the ship for flight and when there are no people or freight on board the ship has to be loaded with water and lead-bags; when the ship is coming in for a landing and the passengers are changed, in order to keep the weight balance, two of the twelve passengers disembark and immediately two new passengers board the ship and so it goes on until the last ones have left and boarded. I would like to see how this is done with large freight. Guess the ship has to be fastend to the ground when offloading or it will float away......!! Or when loading, same again it has to be fastend to the ground as the helium in the ship will make it float if not balanced. I would like to know how they overcome this problem Jürg Tschepen
Fouture
Nice idea, but what if some mudjahedin fighter or a drunk hunter takes a pot shot at these craft ?
William H Lanteigne
@Jurg: \"I would like to know how they overcome this problem\" Read the article again: \"These are not the cigar-shaped gas-filled \'balloons\' of yesteryear but hi-tech semi-rigid lifting bodies that rely on >vectored thrust from onboard engines< and the >aero-lift from the body shape< for up to 40 percent of their lifting capacity with helium providing the rest.\" Vectored thrust and aerodynamic lift from the body shape keeps it aloft. Minus the thrust and the aero lift it won\'t \"float away.\"
Charles Bosse
@Jurg: \"hi-tech semi-rigid lifting bodies that rely on vectored thrust from onboard engines and the aero-lift from the body shape for up to 40 percent of their lifting capacity\" Translation: The shape of the thing provides aerodynamic lift (like an airplane wing). When it\'s not moving, it only has 60% lift, not enough to get it off the ground. That does mean no VTOL, but that\'s a fair trade-off for easy loading and unloading and efficient transport. I\'m sure they\'ll put ropes on these things if they are hanging around long term, but for short cargo transfer they should be fine as long as they don\'t get caught in storm winds. I\'ve been hoping for a few years now to see airships break into the cargo business. I\'m glad to see it finally happening. With the US\'s failing rail system and current unwillingness to invest in upgrading infrastructure, these ships might find a place serving private freight needs here too, and I can only imagine how great a tool this could be for an NGO serving peaceful but remote communities.
Jay Finke
slow moving target ! something that could be hit with a bottle rocket.. nice
Anona Mous
@Charles From their website: "Vectored thrust for vertical takeoff and landing, allied to a bow thruster for independent operation on the ground - removing the need for ground crew."
Desert Tripper
This is all great, but the supply of helium on Earth is rapidly dwindling. Is a return to hydrogen as a lifting material feasible nowadays? It is now widely speculated that the Hindenburg disaster had more to do with the flammable fabric paint than with the hydrogen gas bags inside. It would seem that H2 might be rendered safer with modern leak detection and remediation systems, and the ability to construct an airship with modern materials that are less likely to spark a fire in the first place. It is plentiful (just has to be hydrolyzed from water) and a more effective lifting gas than He. It\'s good to see airship technology alive and well in the modern era. Hopefully this idea won\'t go over like a lead zeppelin!
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