This first appeared as a Comment in the 11 March edition of Flight International
For the first time in almost a century, the attention of a world economy searching desperately for precious resources in ever more remote locations is turning to the lifting power of helium contained within a giant lightweight composite structure.
Flying at a fraction of the speed of a fixed-wing freighter but twice the rate of the fastest container ship, the hybrid airship has emerged in response to a demand for a means of lifting heavy drilling equipment into regions far removed from ports, runways or roads.
The Hybrid Air Vehicles Airlander unveiled at Cardington is one of several concepts aiming to capture the alluring market for resource-driven transport. The Airlander derives 40% of lift in forward flight from aerodynamic shaping, allowing a heavy payload-carrying rigid structure. It also uses an air cushion landing system to moor the airship to the ground, replacing tie-down cables.
These are the true innovations of the modern airship and may be the key to releasing a new transport mode.
But there is reason to be sceptical. Hybrid airships are truly innovative, but they haven’t solved an age-old problem. To unload payloads at a destination, a hybrid airship crew must replace cargo weight with ballast – usually, water or dirt – to offset helium’s constant lift.
A resource-hungry world may be willing to live with this inconvenience, but only time will tell.