Skylifter: heavy duty flying saucer re-thinks lighter than air transport
For decades, fans of airships have been hoping for a large-scale revival of the majestic floating aircraft. Every few years, lighter than air flying concepts come along to raise those hopes, such as Northrop Grumman’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, Skyhook’s JHL-40, and DARPA’s Walrus, which led to the current Aeroscraft ML866 project. Now there's another unique contender to the throw into the mix – Australia’s Skylifter. If it ever makes it to the skies, however, it’s sure to be the source of some bogus UFO sightings.
Skylifter is a dirigible gas balloon system which, as its name implies, is intended for transporting cargo too heavy, bulky or fragile for conventional aircraft – its carrying capacity is rated at 150 tonnes (165 US tons). While the company’s immediate plans are for traditional payloads, down the road it would be interested in developing prefabricated buildings that Skylifter could drop into hard-to-reach locations, or luxury pod units that would take up to 80 passengers at a time on air cruises.
The aircraft would consist of three main sections. Floating at the top would be the symmetrical discus aerostat, which is a fancy way of saying “saucer-shaped balloon.” It would be permanently filled with lighter-than-air gas. Hanging on suspension lines below it would be the cylindrical control pod, with the two-pilot flight deck mounted on the bottom. Cargo would hang from cables below that.
Biodiesel engines, augmented by solar panels on top of the balloon, would generate electricity to power three propellers mounted on the sides of the control pod. The propellers would be cycloidal, meaning that the blades would be arranged horizontally. The main advantage of such propellers would be that they could be rapidly controlled via a helicopter-style collective – this would definitely come in handy for the precise maneuvering involved in the collecting and depositing of cargo.The airship would have an estimated cruising air speed of 45 knots (83 km/h or 52mph), and a range of at least 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles).
As with other lighter-than-air vehicles, Skylifter’s main bragging points are its lifting abilities, the fact that it could stay aloft for days at a time, and its relatively low fuel usage and CO2 emissions (as compared to an airplane or helicopter). Unlike traditional blimp-shaped airships, Skylifter would have no front or rear end, meaning that keeping it turned into the wind would not be an issue, and it could easily spin 360 degrees. It also wouldn’t be limited to landing at airfields with masts, which is the case with blimps. Instead, the pod and balloon would be moored to the ground, and the balloon could be lowered down close to the pod to minimize the effects of wind – the designers estimate that it could withstand gusts of up to 148 km/h (92 mph).
So, will we ever see a Skylifter in real life? Well, the designers have already built two proof-of-concept models of the lift system, and plan to build at least two more that are bigger and better. In the meantime, here’s hoping.