Worth the weight?

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.


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