Here Come the Airships
I heard this interesting radio segment on the future potential of airships on NPR's Science Friday, featuring guests Brandon Buerge of Guardian Flight Systems (largely providing the technical commentary) and Tom Crouch of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (largely providing the historical commentary). Though the article was a little toned down in places for the benefit of the general public listener, but it was still very informative on a number of points provided by the guests. Listening to these guys certainly gives you the impression that airships have a real chance now to round a corner and come back into widespread use in both military and civilian applications.
Since airships disappeared from widespread use in the 1930's, we have seen a number of attempts to bring them back into fashion in a whole manner of roles, but with only very limited adoption. But things could change soon; the US Army has awarded a more than half-billion dollar contract to Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles, which Buerge says is "more money than the [airship] industry has seen probably in the last 40 years together", to develop the HAV3 hybrid airship for the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) contract. Positive experience with the LEMV can only help the reputation of this technology and perhaps convince the US military to take a chance on utilizing airships in other applications, notably transport.
It is only through wide scale adoption by the military (and only the US military really has the funds to pay for the early development) that airships can hope to make any form of a comeback in the commercial world, by funding the design, construction and operational research for successful, economical and large airships. And the opportunity for the airship is probably now better than ever. The military need for long endurance surveillance aircraft (which drove the LEMV requirements) is very important for current operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Large airships can provide significant fuel savings over conventional transport aircraft, and can potentially deliver cargo to areas with very limited infrastructure (though the infrastructure needs for full-time basing is unclear for very large airships). Also, as Buerge states in the radio segment, airships scale up must more efficiency than fixed-wing aircraft, making very-large airlifters a practical possibility.
If the airship can find a home in the US military and elsewhere, then it would only be a matter of time before the commercial world can reap the same rewards for a practical cost. The commercial cargo industries are the obvious benefactors of the technology, but passenger services could be a reality too. Never mind flying cruise ships, what about flying car ferries along the main sea links in Europe and Asia? Airships would clearly be a lot faster than the ferries, the only real competition for a speedy crossing would come from something like the Channel Tunnel, and such rail links are few and far between. Airships wouldn't even have to stop at the shore like a ferry, and could fly inland to a large population center - London to Paris with the family, pet dog and the car in less than 3 hours, with a great view of the English and French countryside along the way? Beats the 20kg of luggage and 30 inch seat pitch you get with the airlines.