The airship finally takes off - Hybrid Air Vehicles has first civil customer
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.
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.
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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.\"
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.
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."
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!